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The University's commitments to mental health are a breath of fresh air

By Maia Miller-Lewis, Deputy Online Comment Editor

It is a sad moment when you realise that Bristol University has become synonymous with poor mental health provision and uncomfortably high numbers of students taking their own lives. It is an unsettling and frightening truth to face, especially for those giddy with excitement about the prospect of coming or returning to university, eager to start the next stage of their life.

In a positive move the University has published a Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy, which aims to address the key concerns raised by students, staff and the general public.

The strategy provides a comprehensive overview of the issues facing the University, addressing leadership, transition to university, prevention and intervention. Points that stand out are a commitment to shorter waiting lists for counselling services, easier access to CBT therapy and open-ended therapy courses.

It would be easy to write the report off as simply another attempt to appease the masses with well-constructed commitments and promises that just brush the problems under the carpet. Anyone is entitled to be sceptical. After all, the apparent failure of Bristol University’s mental health services is not new and it is one that has consistently been brought to the attention of the University’s governing body. Indeed, previous steps taken by the university have arguably been to the detriment of student’s mental health.

Despite that, the new Student Wellbeing Service includes the Residential Life Service and Wellbeing Advisers, placing dedicated full-time staff into halls of residence after the University’s prior decision to remove senior residents from halls of residence was a chaotic and miscalculated move.

Yes, they could be annoying, but senior residents acted as an integral source of support for students struggling with first year problems, in an environment fostering isolation and vulnerability.

This new wellbeing strategy does however hit a sincere note, acting in some way as an apology for the University’s previous lacklustre efforts.
Worked on collectively with the SU officers, staff and students, it is an inclusive document that, near enough hits all the points raised about the nature of the service. Most importantly, this report does not mollycoddle students.

It gives them autonomy, encouraging, not obligating students to declare pre-existing mental health issues and approach a trusted body. It treats students with the respect they should be afforded as emerging adults. It also does not pull any punches about the extent of the university capabilities to holistically tackle student metal health.

I recently heard someone suggest that tutors and lecturers should be trained to directly intervene with students they see struggling. I have two questions about this proposal.

Firstly, as human beings, surely the majority of academics would be able to respond in an appropriate manner in a crisis. Other than an awareness of physical warning signs, what form of training would be appropriate here to supersede intuition? Secondly, imagine you are a tutor and you miss a warning sign you have been trained to spot and the sense of guilt you would feel as a result.

It is not our tutor’s responsibilities to watch our every move, Naturally, they should not be dismissive or uncaring about the wellbeing of their students. But it is not their job to act as a pseudo-parent. First and foremost, they are there to teach and this report reflects that.
Fundamentally, university is about independence.

Before you rage against the machine, I am not in any way undermining or underplaying the importance of addressing mental health issues, or the fact that the university should be aware of the ramifications of neglect. All I am saying is that at the end of the day, university is an institution, a business not an omniscient body.

As highlighted in the report, it cannot replace the NHS, your friends or you family. It can only go so far to help students cope with an overwhelmingly challenging and complicated transition.

There is always room for criticism, and I could level it just as easy as the next person. But I think we need to simultaneously see the positive progress made by this report.

Motivated by the incredible power of the student body and the organisers of the march for mental health, who, deserve far more credit that can ever be set down in print, this report is a step in the right direction. We just have to keep up the momentum and all realise we are not alone, the support is there and we just have to reach out and make others aware of our struggles. Little steps.

Featured image: Epigram / Ed Southgate