The University's wellbeing services are not equipped to support victims of sexual assault

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Adeline Nicholas discusses the lack of support available at Bristol University for those affected by sexual assault, and the dangerous consequences of this for student mental wellbeing.

Alongside the controversial ‘halls-to-hubs’ change in the provision of pastoral care in halls of residences, the wellbeing review includes the introduction of 24 Wellbeing Advisors which is a change that was widely requested and will undoubtedly be a step in the right direction.

there are no counsellors trained to deal with more complex issues including those related to traumatic experiences such as sexual assault

However, an overwhelming complaint that students voiced was the shortcomings of the Student counselling service, which is constantly oversubscribed with waiting lists of up to 9 weeks long to receive one-to-one treatment. Another vital deficiency in the counselling service is that there are no counsellors trained to deal with more complex issues including those related to traumatic experiences such as sexual assault, meaning that I was unable to receive support after my own experience with this issue.

I feel that the review is doing nothing to address these issues, despite the fact that we have made it abundantly clear that this is a key weak point of the current system.

In recent years there has been a lot of focus on the issue of sexual assault and harassment both on University campuses nationwide and in wider society; this has been especially prominent in the media thanks to the #metoo campaign started by the women’s rights activist Tarana Burke. Some studies suggest that up to 1 in 3 female students and 1 in 8 male students experience sexual assault or harassment during their time at University*.

It is widely understood that having experienced a stressful event or trauma such as sexual assault or harassment greatly increases the victim’s likelihood of experiencing mental health difficulties in their life, with an estimated 30% of rape victims suffering ongoing PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms.

Knowing that sexual assault and harassment is unfortunately so prevalent an experience for University students, and that such an experience often leads to mental health struggles or even PTSD, it seems outrageous to me that the student health service is totally unequipped to provide counselling to treat these problems.

To address this issue, the official university-wide model of pastoral care cites “partnerships with public health, NHS and national health and wellbeing charities” as part of its support network. The NHS provides a very limited therapy service in Bristol and South Gloucestershire and for the most part GP’s are forced to refer patients requiring counselling for trauma to a network of local charities known as the Survivor Pathway.

There are a number of sexual violence support charities practicing in Bristol, many of which are women-only charities, and several of which only help with recent assaults (within the last 12 months), further reducing the support options for male victims or those for whom the trauma is historical.

Whilst the funding of charities such as SARSAS (Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support) has increased over recent years, it does not keep up with the demand for the service, which has increased by over 800% since 2013.

Due to this massive increase in demand, waiting lists for counselling have extended and it now takes a minimum of 9 months from first contacting SARSAS to receiving treatment. For final year or Erasmus students, many will not reach the top of the waiting list before they leave Bristol, leaving them with no support options at all.

The seriousness of this oversight, and the lack of support I received from the University when I needed it most, tells me that the University’s senior management are out of touch with the issues faced by students and do not believe that sexual assault survivors are their problem.

the University does not donate money to or support these charities in any way

I had the opportunity to question Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady on this matter and he showed total unawareness of the lack of support options for sexual assault survivors and its relevance to the student population.

He also confirmed that, despite the fact that the support available to Bristol students relies heavily on services provided by charitable organisations, as acknowledged in the wellbeing review documentation, the University does not donate money to or support these charities in any way.

I am disappointed that the University has let the responsibility of my wellbeing, and of hundreds of others with experiences like mine, fall onto charities which do not have the resources or capacity to deal with the fallout of the ongoing sexual assault problem at University.

Mark Ames, Director of Student Services at the University of Bristol, said:
“We’re sorry to hear that Adeline is dissatisfied with the support she’s received from the Student Counselling Service. This academic year, we have been investing additional resource to meet a 30 per cent increase in demand on this service. Students seeking support will normally be assessed within 10 working days, and individual counselling is usually available within four to six weeks. Students identified as high-risk will be prioritised."

“If a student who has experienced sexual assault requests a one-to-one counselling session, a trained counsellor will meet with them to determine the level of support which is needed and a support plan will be put in place to ensure they receive the best advice and support available, whether this is in-house or externally."

“While we have a team of counsellors with a wide range of expertise based at the University, we are primarily an academic institution and cannot replicate the excellent, longer-term, specialist services provided by dedicated organisations in the city."

“We realise that it can be difficult for students to report these issues and, to make this process easier, we are launching a Report and Support online portal for survivors of sexual violence and other forms of harassment. This will enable us to both understand the nature and scale of the issue we are facing, as well as provide support to students making such reports.
“We are also introducing a whole-institution approach to support which includes major new investments to support student wellbeing in our academic schools, in central services such as our Student Counselling and Health Services, and a new model of pastoral support in our residences. We hope these changes will make it easier for students to report issues, such as sexual harassment, to suitably trained staff who are easily accessible to them.”

Featured image: Flickr / Sam Hames


If you find that you relate to the information in this article, don't hesitate to get in touch with Epigram Wellbeing for more information on who to contact, or call the Student Counselling Service on (0)117 394 0123.

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