Exclusion under the fitness to study policy


Ruth Day shares her personal experience of having her studies temporarily suspended under the 'Fitness to Study' policy, as a result of her mental health issues.

In response to the growing concerns about student mental health, the University of Bristol, along with many other Higher Education institutions, has a ‘Fitness to Study’ policy which lays down procedures to be followed where there are serious concerns about a student’s ability to participate in University life, or where their participation gives rise to serious risk to their own safety or that of others.

This left me trying to deal with weeks of having a huge question mark hanging over my future, feeling uncertain and lost, with no mental health support at all

This is invoked if the University has already explored all possible informal means of resolving such an issue and includes various levels of intervention, action plans and support. However, if the situation is deemed serious enough, and the risk to the student or the University is very high, the Pro-Vice Chancellor can immediately suspend a student.

This means that the student is sent home, banned from all University premises, and later the suspension is reviewed to see if the student can return to their studies.

On the evening of 12th October, I was handed a letter telling me that I was temporarily suspended from University under the Fitness to Study Policy, with immediate effect, due to my mental health and suicide ideation, having had no previous warnings or proper reason except a vague line in the letter stating that “the risk to both yourself and the University community are high and the hall of residence is currently not an appropriate place for you to be”. I was driven back to London the same evening, barely having had time to say goodbye to anyone, confused and terrified that I had affected my friends by being too open about my illness.

Although the letter told me to get better, I was packed off back to a place where mental health services are chronically underfunded, and it takes several weeks to get an appointment. Furthermore, I had mental health services withdrawn at Bristol because I was no longer living here, but no mental health services in London because I was deemed to be temporarily resident. This left me trying to deal with weeks of having a huge question mark hanging over my future, feeling uncertain and lost, with no mental health support at all.

I was told that my suspension would be reviewed after I had attended a psychiatric assessment arranged by the University. However, the assessment only took place four weeks after my suspension, despite originally being assured it would be a few days. It felt like the University were doing everything to be difficult, to push me down until I gave up. The whole process seemed dragged out, thus maximising the damage done to my studies and mental health.

I didn’t get the chance to have a conversation with someone, and therefore have my many questions answered. I even had to formally request to attend the panel of academics and pastoral staff that met to consider my future. I felt isolated and ashamed, like I’d completely messed up my education because of my poor mental health, which incidentally made me more depressed and hopeless.

It does not mean that we turn students into potential suicide statistics and forget that they are people in the process

Thankfully, the panel approved my return to University, after eight weeks of suspension and I am very grateful to those who helped make that possible. However, my experience indicates that, although the ‘Fitness to Study Policy’ is intended to safeguard the wellbeing of students, it seriously risks further damage to students’ mental health.

The University is worried and shocked, and rightly so, by the deaths of its students in the last year. These are genuine tragedies, and of course policies need to be changed and services need to be improved to keep students safe and supported when unwell. But it does not mean that we stifle conversation about mental illness. It does not mean that we turn students into potential suicide statistics and forget that they are people in the process. It does not mean that we become so risk averse as a University that we immediately suspend students on hearing even a whisper of suicide ideation.

The facts are plain and simple. We are students. We are people. However, we tend to get lost in the bureaucratic machine that is the University, with those at the top who make the big decisions most likely very removed from the students whose lives they are making decisions about. It is not feasible to take away someone’s routine and someone’s friends, their passions, studies, and mostly importantly their healthcare, and expect that they will significantly recover. Therefore, the University needs to review their policies and consider what should be in place that puts students’ wellbeing first.

Firstly, there must be genuine conversation with the student in question, or at least a medical professional that knows the student and has worked with them for some time. Without properly understanding the student’s condition, their needs, how their illness manifests itself, and what would be best for their recovery, you risk making them worse, putting them in greater danger, and setting back their recovery by weeks, maybe months.

We cannot gamble with students’ lives; those making the decision to suspend must always have the greatest possible amount of information available to them to ensure they make the best decision for the student’s wellbeing.

Secondly, it must be ensured that if the student is to be suspended, they have adequate support and healthcare at home to facilitate instead of impeding the student’s recovery. You cannot suspend a student so they “will take this time to receive medical help and support” but by doing this prevent them from accessing the care they need.

perhaps only through first turning to a friend would someone with mental health problems seek professional help

Thirdly, the suspension process must be made as smooth and open as possible to minimise distress. Let the student speak if they want to, they have that right and shouldn’t be completely removed from the decision-making process that ultimately decides the direction in which their future goes. Don’t make students feel like one powerless voice going against a bureaucratic machine.

Lastly, allow conversation about mental health among students. Of course, stress that when in crisis someone should go to the pastoral team in halls or seek medical attention, but don’t prevent students from being open about their mental health. Usually, when someone first seeks help, they turn to a friend for support; we cannot shut down this first avenue of support, as perhaps only through first turning to a friend would someone with mental health problems seek professional help.

A university who recently signed the “Time to Change” pledge should reflect on their policies and procedures towards students with mental health problems and always put students first when considering fitness to study. My hope is that the University reviews this policy and makes the appropriate changes so that no other student has to go through a suspension that does more harm than good.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “The wellbeing and safety of our students is a top priority. We support many students experiencing mental health difficulties.

“A temporary exclusion under the fitness to study policy is only enacted as a last resort when we have genuine and serious concerns for a student’s welfare.

“We’re sorry this student feels that things were not handled well. We would be happy to meet to discuss her experience.”

Featured image: Epigram / Leila Mitwally

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