Bristol’s extension rules exacerbate mental health issues

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By Matilda Musto, MA English Literature

My experiences with extenuating circumstances forms have shown me there must be a better way of doing it at Bristol. Currently, it is a rigid system which is particularly tough to navigate when you are in mental or physical pain.

Mental health has been a topic at the forefront of minds and discussions around the University of Bristol in recent years - and for good reason.

The Huffington Post reports a 154 per cent increase in students with mental health problems, The Times brings light to the twelfth Bristol student in three years to die by suicide, and many students are part of a three month minimum waiting list to see a counsellor.

The University is by no means alone in the struggle of combatting anxiety and stress but it seems to me, from my experiences at my undergraduate university, that small policy changes surrounding deadlines and mitigating circumstances could have a significant impact on the wellbeing of students.

I, like many others, found my mental health in decline in recent months.

Having recently been diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis and struggling to walk due to excruciating pain, I knew I would struggle to meet a deadline for a summative assignment. I nevertheless did my best to complete the work on time.

There is a real stigma surrounding obtaining an extension, something that many of my friends and fellow students at the University have expressed.

On the morning of the deadline, after reading through the work, I realised it was in no way ready to be submitted. It was disjointed, full of errors and I knew I could do better.

I have suffered most of my life with depression and anxiety, but this had to be the lowest I have ever felt.

There is a real stigma surrounding obtaining an extension, something that many of my friends and fellow students at the University have expressed.

I began filling in the extension form, a struggle in its own right. In the midst of a severe mental breakdown, we are tasked with explaining and justifying our situation. To ask people who are in the middle of a mentally or physically challenging time to clearly articulate, justify and argue why they are deserving of help feeds back into a larger unhelpful narrative with regards to the stigma surrounding mental health.

In this difficult time, I emailed them eight minutes after the essay deadline.

Because of these eight minutes, it was impossible for me to receive an extension. If I handed an essay in within seven days, I would be capped at a pass mark (50) and after that I would receive a fail (0).

In the midst of a severe mental breakdown, we are tasked with explaining and justifying our situation.

Once I saw this email, I felt completely isolated and wanted to give up entirely. In my lowest hour, suffering in pain both physically and mentally, I was treated as if I had done something wrong. Quite honestly it just broke me.

It is my view that the policies Bristol has surrounding extension and deadlines foster an environment of stigma and stress. It does not have to be like this.

King’s College London, where I completed my undergraduate philosophy degree, operates a mitigating circumstances policy, where what is important is the time of your suffering as opposed to when you express that to the University.

If you felt you were not in a position where you could sit an exam or submit an assignment, you didn’t. You had seven days after the deadline or date of exam to submit a mitigating circumstances form and they would assess your situation to see how they could help. They usually did this by allowing you to take an exam later or grant extensions.

In my lowest hour, suffering in pain both physically and mentally, I was treated as if I had done something wrong.

To those that might suggest that this is problematic, perhaps even diminishing the quality or value of the degree, it is important to note that KCL find itself twenty places higher in the QS World University Rankings.

After I went through this process at KCL, I received several calls from my personal teacher, checking on my general wellbeing. This levelled the playing field and made me feel cared for, allowing me to work to the best of my ability. This contrasts the copied and pasted email I received after suffering much worse in Bristol.

I do not blame my Tutor. I believe that policy shapes the responses: my King’s tutor was kinder because the policy created that environment.

I have seen from my friendship group alone that this is not an isolated issue.

Bristol could easily adopt such a policy, a small change that would both indicate the University’s intention to combat the issue, and lead to a friendlier, fairer, student-focussed environment.

My goal is to create a discussion and ultimately bring about policy change in this area in Bristol.

There are many ways to achieve this aim, not only that which I have suggested above. I have seen from my friendship group alone that this is not an isolated issue. We are adults of all ages, and deserve better than institutional indifference.

If you have experienced any issues surrounding this area, would like to share your story, or would like to express your support for smart policy change in this area, please email fairerpolicies4bristol@outlook.com.

Featured image: Unsplash/Helloquence

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