'I'm sorry if any student feels let down': An interview with Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady


Following the tragic deaths of three of our students in recent weeks, incoming co-Editor in Chief Ed Southgate talks to Professor Hugh Brady about his personal response to the news, as well as what the University is doing to ensure students are supported.

Our University community has faced a devastating few weeks, on top of a tough couple of years, as the number of students taking their lives is increasing at distressing levels. While we should not forget that this is a growing problem within the Higher Education sector both nationally and indeed globally, each individual university has their own responsibility and duty to their students to support them through the struggles that our generation is facing. Following the news of the third suspected suicide at our university, I wanted to hear from Hugh Brady himself about how the University is responding.

Many within our student community often feel disconnected from the Vice-Chancellor; he is somewhat of an enigmatic figure of whom we know little about. Before I began speaking about wellbeing policy, I wanted to see a little bit of Hugh Brady as an individual – not Professor Hugh Brady or Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady, but the Hugh Brady who is human and perhaps just as vulnerable to mental health difficulties as anyone else.

When I asked him how he as an individual responded to the tragic news, he said: ‘Personally it is very difficult. Any student death is a tragedy that we all feel. I certainly feel it, especially when you have a number in quick succession - not just as an individual, but I'm a father of three students. I see them and their friends, and unfortunately at the universities they go to again I'm aware of friends of acquaintances who have taken their life.

'If we divorce the tragedies from being a Vice-Chancellor, it is really concerning and disturbing, sad, tragic – all of those combined. I can really sense that feeling also amongst our students and staff.’

He described the 'simultaneous feeling of sorrow and that sense of tragedy, as a parent realising that there are parents and friends of the individual who has taken his or her life - the personal aspect is large. But in equal measure, as the Vice-Chancellor, you always use each individual event to evaluate what we have done and what we are doing'.

He added: 'My emotions span from the deeply personal to the determination to ensure that we deal with this issue as best we can'.

As a father of three students, I certainly feel it. If we divorce the tragedies from being a Vice-Chancellor, it is really concerning and disturbing, sad, tragic – all of those combined. I can really sense that feeling also amongst our students and staff.

This felt like an important confession from the Vice-Chancellor, who has recently come under fire from a student body angry and upset about the increasing student deaths and the apparently unemotional responses that lack compassion from the University. I wanted to unpack this further to find out how much he understands and can empathise with our situation.

He said he has known ‘many’ people personally who have faced and been affected by mental health difficulties. Two students who were in his medical class when he was an undergraduate took their lives soon after graduation, while another individual he knew made ‘a very serious attempt’.

He also recognised though that suicide is ‘just the extreme’, and he said he is ‘aware of increasing mental health difficulties’. This is certainly the central issue, but throughout my time at Bristol I have heard endless accounts of students not receiving adequate support and I needed to put this to him.

To the students who feel that they have been let down by the support services, Professor Brady said: ‘I’m sorry’.

He added: ‘We are only going to solve this together’, before discussing how we all view student life through different lenses so ‘feedback from students on what has and hasn’t worked is really valuable.’

Professor Brady also emphasised that this ‘does appear to be a national and an international issue’. Asked whether that means the University should not take some responsibility for the tragic loss of our students in the past two years, he said ‘no’ and stressed that it ‘is really important that we do not use [it being a national and international issue] as an excuse. This does appear to be the challenge of our time, but let us lead the change’.

So, what will the University do to lead the change? As Professor Brady said, it is important to understand what we have done and what we could do more, which has much to do with understanding what causes the issues that lead to such tragic circumstances. As a research university, he wants to assess what we can do to better understand the problem because ‘if we understand it better, we can better understand causation and get closer to early intervention’.

Whilst the precise causes are still unclear due to insufficient research, Professor Brady believes there are numerous potential factors, including the increased academic pressure on our generation, the national debate over fees and financial pressures, our age being of geopolitical uncertainty with concerns over Trump, North Korea, the Middle East and Climate Change to name a few.

He also reiterated concerns about the dangers of social media. He said: ‘I am really struck when I look at students how their phone is almost glued to the palm of their hand’. To our Vice-Chancellor, social media is a concern in how it can be seen to create an ‘illusion of this perfect happy world’ where no one can have a bad day because we only upload our happiest of moments; if we do have a bad day, we are made to feel like the exception.

With such an array of potential causes, the crucial question is: What could have been done and what needs to be done to ensure no student takes their life again? The Vice-Chancellor wants ‘to ensure we have the right support in place for those immediately affected’ by mental illness, but additionally wants ‘to get ahead’ of the crisis.

This is a particularly significant aim given that so many students are concerned that the University’s approach is too reactive rather than preventative, in that only those who are critically ill will be seen urgently. For our Vice-Chancellor, the essence behind his ‘whole-institution approach’ is to be preventative. With Wellbeing advisors in schools, and the Residential Villages providing 24/7/365 care, he hopes that we will get ahead in identifying the early signs of mental health difficulties.

The Residential Villages are part of a controversial halls reform that will see Wardens and Deputy Wardens axed in favour of a hub-based system. He defended the reform, arguing that whereas Wardens and Deputy Wardens would have a day job preventing them from being in residences during the day – which can be a telling time for students struggling as they may not go to classes and will hanging around inside – the sole job of the new staff will be ‘to provide support for students’.

He added: ‘I don’t think we can stand by a system where there isn’t 24/7 support by people specifically trained on these issues’.

The Vice-Chancellor also promised an ‘increased capacity in terms of counselling and the GP service’, and his aim is for there to be more ‘clarity in terms of care pathways’. By this, he means to make clear specifically what academic tutors should and should not be providing in terms of pastoral support.

But will this be enough to ensure that any student who needs support in the future will receive it? He said it is his ‘ambition’ that the further investment into wellbeing services this year of £1million, on top of what else is being done to wellbeing support, will be enough, but added: ‘You can never guarantee this’. He did, nevertheless, promise additional investments if necessary to give the institution ‘the potential to really enhance the service and to be seen as nation-leading’.

It is clear that mental health will be on our radar for some time. It certainly is the biggest crisis facing our generation and, as such, it is important that, while we scrutinise the University, we all look out for each other. Look out for your friends and let them know that you are there to support them, or direct them to professional help. If you are struggling, do not feel you must suffer in silence or that it will always be like this. It won’t be, I should know.

As Professor Brady said to end his interview, ‘it is a sign of strength and not of weakness to talk'.

Most people who are thinking of taking their own life have shown warning signs beforehand.
These can include becoming depressed, showing sudden changes in behaviour, talking about wanting to die and feelings of hopelessness.  These feelings do improve and can be treated.

If you are concerned about someone, or need help yourself, please contact the Samaritans on 116 123.

Other student support services include:
Young Minds https://youngminds.org.uk/ 0808 802 5544
Nightline https://www.nightline.ac.uk/want-to-talk/
Papyrus https://www.papyrus-uk.org/ 0800 068 41 41
Student Minds http://www.studentminds.org.uk/findsupport.html

(Featured Image: Epigram / Ed Southgate)

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Ed Southgate

former co-Editor in Chief 2018-2019 | former Editor of Epigram Comment 2017-2018 | UoB English student 2016-19 | Twitter: @ed_southgate