By Patrick Sullivan, Co-Editor-in-Chief
In 2018 hundreds of students took part in two separate marches for mental health. Two years on and the latest Wellbeing Survey results show that many Bristol students still don’t feel that they belong here - has the student population improved its community since the protests united many?
In May 2018, hundreds of students took part in a march demanding better mental health services. Later that year in November, many again turned out in solidarity with one another after a period between October 2016 and April 2018 where 11 of their fellow students had died.
During the academic year 2017/18, I was based in South Wales for my year in industry but would come back to Bristol most weekends. Everybody was speaking earnestly about mental health, the changes needed to services at the time, why there was an increased demand, and why Bristol particularly was suffering so badly. Students all seemed to be ramping up the conversation both in-person and online, as platforms such as Bristruths swelled with heartfelt student stories.
Two years on and the services have improved, though short blocks of counselling and long waiting times (albeit lower than the NHS) still struggle with demands. The student voice, however, seems to have reduced to a small group of easy-to-recognise individuals and campaigns with the wider dialogue seemingly drowned out by more vitriol politics and other issues. Simply put, mental health is still the greatest issue affecting campus and it affects everyone in varying ways.
I’m now in my fifth year as a UoB student and have seen the evolution of the discussion go from barely a whisper during my Freshers’ week to public outcry to simmering below the surface again. When the mental health debate peaked in 2017/18, I was largely on the outside, working Monday to Friday at an engineering firm with people far-detached from the issue, both in age and lifestyle. I was desperate to be a part of this newfound Bristol student togetherness, especially having spent my first two years here feeling isolated from university life and working 20 hours a week in a clothes shop to pay my way.
Upon my return, I threw myself into a role with Epigram and found several student groups who were open, friendly, and going through similar experiences as myself. Before, I would rush to and from lectures, if I went at all. After you miss the first few lectures, what you realise is that nobody really notices and, looking back on it, that was actually quite scary. As a student, you have the freedom to completely withdraw yourself from the community but also the power to make yourself a part of it.
The results of the University’s 2019 Wellbeing Survey revealed that 22 per cent of the student participants felt ‘very’ or ‘often’ lonely. Among a plethora of worrying statistics about student mental illness, it is the proof that loneliness is rife that is the most striking. While diagnosed conditions require the University or NHS to provide medical services capable of meeting the needs of students moving to the city, the issue of loneliness can be attributed partly to our student community.
There’s a number of brilliant projects, such as Peace of Mind, Nightline and many, many more, led by students who really care about others. The SU Living Room is another project which students have embraced and brings a greater spirit of togetherness. It’s harder on our fractious city centre campus to feel the presence of a 26,000 strong student population, but a kind, welcoming environment starts with students willing to put their time into mental health projects. After the loss and suffering we’ve endured as a university, we need to look out for each other.
The caveat to the survey results is that only 10 per cent of the student population (2,637) took part in the survey and those who did are more likely to be aware of mental health issues at the University. In 2018, 22 per cent of students filled it out and it proves the conversation is fading a little into the background. It’s somewhat worrying and as the years go on since the marches of 2018, fewer and fewer students remain with the memories. There needs to be a lasting legacy from that time that this campus is always willing to listen rather than let someone suffer on their own.
There are three initiatives where you can reach out now. The SU Wellbeing Network is hosting a student-led wellbeing conference on 5 March and SOS is running an all-day event on mental health and recovery on 17 March, both of which I’ll be talking about the charity Talk Club with the project’s co-founders. Bristruths have also set up an anonymous submissions page specifically for individuals’ wellbeing experience at the university. Epigram’s involvement in the latter will be contacting willing students who want to share their stories more publicly. I strongly believe this conversation needs to be as open and honest as possible, and the relief of simply being listened to can make a huge difference.
It’s time again to show unity on the issue of mental health as a student body and work together so that everybody feels welcome here.
Featured image: Epigram / Cameron Scheijde
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