'We as a community can build a vision for a better university': An interview with organisers of the March for Better Mental Health Services



Ahead of the March for Better Mental Health Services, which starts at 6pm tomorrow outside the Victoria Rooms, incoming co-Editors in Chief, Ed Southgate and Cameron Scheijde, talk to Lee Sykes, Ruth Day and Grace Carroll - three of the student organisers.

We began by asking an obvious but important question, about why they have decided to organise this march. They said the march was first a response to the upset and ‘justifiable’ anger amongst the student body surrounding the deaths at the University. Because of this, they aim for the march to firstly be a commemorative one, in order for us to remember those who have tragically lost their lives, but also to be a springboard into a wider campaign for better mental health services. Whilst the University and SU have put out surveys, they want to create something visible and cohesive, and to show that people are fighting to make a difference.

They were keen to emphasise that they are not attacking the services that exist; rather, they believe the services that are available are good, but there is just not enough and they are not visible enough for the demand. Indeed, they suggested that ‘the University needs to do more in terms of outreach’ because they believe in the current system that ‘you have to do all the work, which makes you feel a bit lost’.

Ruth spoke about the survey that they have also put out to students, in which some of the responses showed anger towards waiting lists, students not getting the attention they need when they need it, and even students being suspended under the Fitness to Study policy. Ruth said: ‘we as a community can create a vision for a better university and improve the services that exist already’.

Asked about what they think has caused the mental health crisis at the University, they touched on a range of issues. The nature of the University of Bristol itself as an elite university does not help, they claim. Lee says that there ‘is definitely a competitive streak to the University’, but perhaps more importantly mentions how ‘we all come from backgrounds where we are academically very strong, but coming to university you are all the same. That is quite difficult.’

The march aims to commemorate those who have lost their lives, but also to act as a springboard into a wider campaign for better mental health services

Lee began by discussing how in her view ‘needs to think carefully about what they’re doing in terms of the course structure’, as this she says can be a source of great stress for many students. She also said how being a city university, instead of a campus one, can create the feeling of a lack of community. Indeed, with the SU building so far away, she suggests that ‘we don’t have that central hub’ for students to feel a sense of belonging.

Asked about the role of the SU in the mental health crisis, Lee, Ruth and Grace all agreed that ‘they are supporting us’ and that they are to be our representatives ‘to help us lobby for change’. Grace assured that ‘they’re doing as much as they can do’ within their power to help the crisis; ‘they are not the University’, they said, so cannot make the changes but can lobby for the changes.

In terms of what needs to be changed, they all believed that there ‘needs to be a balance between professionally-trained staff and friendly faces’. Grace spoke of how a lot of people will approach their tutors or personal tutors because they can be a friendly face, however not all of them are professionally-trained and do not necessarily know where to send their students. This is not to say that tutors need to be trained, Grace stressed, but that it must be clear who is trained and there to help us, and there must be enough trained staff to deal with the demand. Indeed, Ruth said that the feelings of ‘social isolation combined with not knowing where to turn’ do not help.

Lee also added that it can be difficult because, without the professionally-trained staff, it can be very much dependent on who your personal tutor is. Some students have great personal tutors who are very caring and check up on their students, but others do not.

Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady recently announced a proposed ‘opt-in’ policy, where students can give permission to the University to contact their parents if they are particularly worried about them. All three were sceptical of this, however, with Lee asking ‘what are you parent going to do’ when they are a long way from Bristol, and all of them agreeing that it can be problematic as ‘some parents aren’t supportive’.

You can't suffer in silence

They worry that this would take autonomy away from the students, which Ruth says ‘can make things worse as it can make a student feel out of control’. They believe this, like with students being suspended under the Fitness to Study policy, is ‘almost like you have been punished’ and will further contribute to ‘a lack of trust between the student body and the University’.

We then discussed Hugh Brady's suggestion that the world of social media can be detrimental to mental health. Lee passionately emphasised how, whilst there can be pitfalls to social media, it 'can be so important to students in crisis'. Particularly for those in first year, she said, who have not built the relationships to confide in others, being able to immediately FaceTime friends and family can prove very helpful. They urged that we do not focus entirely on social medi as a negative entity, but work to channel the positive effects that it can have.

Finally, to any students who may be struggling now, they urge you to seek help and to talk. As Ruth says, ‘you can’t suffer in silence’; whether you speak to a friend, family member or someone at the University, they all urged that the best way forward it to talk.

The March for Better Mental Health Services will take place tomorrow (Friday 25th May) at 6PM. It will start outside Wills Memorial Hall and end outside Senate House, where there will be a series of speakers.

Speakers include; Ruth Day, Papatya O’Reilly, Isaac Haigh, Dr Scott Greenwell, Tom Phillips, and one more to be announced.

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

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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