University term begins with student mental health firmly under spotlight

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

It is billed as the best days of your life, with new-found freedoms and friendships.

But the backdrop to the start of this year’s freshers’ week is one of mounting concern that too many students are falling through the gaps - with deadly consequences.

A tragic spate of suicides, including 11 deaths at Bristol University in just 18 months, has placed universities under increased scrutiny to improve mental health services and respond to the unprecedented number of students requiring support.

Institutions have been accused of "failing a generation" with their response so far, with the universities minister even writing to vice-chancellors on the eve of term to demand they prioritise mental health, warning: "There is no negotiation on this."

For Ruth Day and her fellow students, change is long overdue.

Ruth, 19, arrived at Bristol - one of the UK's top universities - in 2017 with a diagnosed mental health condition; she struggled during freshers’ week and her subsequent battle to find appropriate support culminated in her taking herself to hospital to ensure her own safety.

“In terms of finding actual therapy which I needed, I had no clue what to do - it took me going to hospital in freshers’ before I got a doctor's appointment,” she told ITV News.

Ruth was eventually deemed unfit to even be on campus as part of the university’s fitness-to-study policy and suspended - a response she says was lacking in any compassion and only compounded her depression.

The 19-year-old claims the university wanted to wash its hands of her in fear of another death and more negative headlines.

Her treatment prompted her to organise a rally back in May to demand change. Several hundred Bristol students - some shaken by recent events, others anxious about their own health and access to treatment - marched with her.

Despite the outcry, Ruth is unconvinced the next intake of freshers are any better off.

“Even now I have people messaging me asking where to go for their mental health,” she said.

“Universities seem very preoccupied with league tables and reputation, so there is an atmosphere of competition as opposed to real human connection and community; this is incredibly isolating and adds to students' general anxiety.”

Bristol University has seen a tragic spate of student suicides. Credit: PA Wire

Bristol insists it has a grip on the issue, announcing an extra £1 million for mental health services.

But planned changes to its pastoral care system have proved deeply unpopular, while many have also reacted angrily to the millions being spent on a new campus in the city - fearing an already strained support system will be overwhelmed by an increase in student numbers.

“The fact that unis seem to prioritise expansion and building projects above welfare - that really makes me worried.”

The problem, of course, is not isolated to Bristol. Cases of students struggling to access care and support before taking their own lives have been reported across the country, most recently in Liverpool and Birmingham.

As for the underlying causes of the crisis, they are open for debate.

University leaders, students and health professionals agree that efforts to destigmatise mental health has led more students to seek help during what is a major transition in their young lives.

But some also fear this generation of students are under far greater stress than their predecessors with tuition fees exceeding £9,000; spiralling rents; a challenging graduate jobs market; and the perils of social media where peers regularly paint a picture perfect life.

Whatever the key factor, a perfect storm has been brewing and - with student suicides up and dropouts linked to mental health at record levels - vice-chancellors are under immense pressure to act.

And as she prepares for her second year of study, Ruth believes universities have a moral obligation to do just that - and save the doctors, teachers and scientists of tomorrow.

“It just seems like universities are deferring the issue and aren't taking responsibility for the stressful environment and overstretched support services which they are responsible for.”

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “Mental health and wellbeing is fast emerging as the single biggest public health issue affecting young people today, both here in the UK and globally.

"We are taking every step we can, to work with our students to help them build the life-skills and resilience to cope with the pressures they face, and to identify vulnerable students as early as possible so we can support them with their mental health issues.

“Our whole-institution approach will help us reach out to our students more proactively. We are putting in place a structure of preventative services and policies to try and avoid our students reaching crisis point. We are being supported in this work by mental health leads from the NHS and Public Health England.”