Over the last two decades there has been a looming university crisis with regards to student’s mental wellbeing. Sadly this has meant there is an increase in the amount of suicides in UK universities over the last twenty years. According to the Office for National Statistics the year of July 2017 saw 95 student suicides which equated to one suicide every four days. This was only highlighted by the discovery that 11 students from Bristol University killed themselves in the same 18 month period of October 2016 and April 2018, posing the question – can universities look after their students?
A recent IPPR study shows that there has been a fivefold increase in students in their first year at university reporting a mental health issue and 94% of higher education establishment have seen an escalation in demand for support including counselling and therapy over the last five years.
The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened these tensions as students find themselves trapped in their accommodations and isolating alone, for some this is in a brand new location away from home away from their loved ones and support systems. In the first term of universities returning, there was a student suicide every week.
Analysis has found that UK student suicide rates have risen by 56% in the last ten years according to Instagram post by activist Ben West.
Students haven’t been treated fairly throughout the pandemic. Lured into accommodation and paying fees for an experience they haven’t truly had, students have been completely abandoned and isolated – and not just for the mandatory two weeks.
In extreme cases such as the University of Manchester, there were measures taken to keep the students ‘safe’ such as putting up fences around the perimeter of the campuses.
Serena Jemmett who is a first year at University of Manchester was one of the organisers of the protest against the fences. “It was mad, we literally woke up and walked outside and there were fences everywhere, it was that sudden. They hadn’t emailed us the night before or anything.
“There was also massive inconsistencies with the reason for the fences. We asked security guards why they were up and some said it was for our own protection as there had been lots of drug dealers and activity lately and then some others said it was because we were spreading the coronavirus.”
There was a protest taken by students against the fences, for obvious reasons, which resulted in the fences being knocked down. Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell apologised to the students via email afterwards and said “we clearly didn’t think it through.”
Jemmett said: “There was a boy who killed himself at the university and outside the fences where the ambulances would’ve been was a sign that said ‘keeping students safe’ like are you though?”
It has been reported that the university spent £11,000 on the fences used to contain the students.
Due to physical learning not being possible due to the pandemic, universities and colleges have resorted to Zoom and online teaching materials to help get students through their course. However, some are not finding this effective and are struggling. The amount of face to face time between students and their lecturers has disintegrated.
“We pay tuition fees, I’m supposed to have nine contact hours and I have two hours fifteen on Zoom. All lectures are prerecorded as well.”
Lack of communication between the universities and their students is a huge factor in the loneliness and isolation that students are currently feeling. This is even reflected in their coursework, as students find that the feedback they receive is unhelpful and doesn’t allow them to learn from their mistakes or triumphs. These are key areas that are involved with physical learning, making it difficult for students to know if they are progressing which in turn is causing a lack of motivation and loss of routine.
Students were all asked to isolate for two weeks upon their arrival to the university but this was extended and students soon found themselves as prisoners within the same four walls. The University had severe measures in place to make sure no students were fraternising or breaking the regulations.
“A lot of us have been getting fined for having people over, but then how would we have made friends without breaching the rules a little?”
“We have, without fail, every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, the police on campus parading around in group of eight and there’s also security that can enter your flat anytime.”
“We were in isolation for two weeks, and we did our isolation and the university had no support for us. They told us to go out anyway and wear a mask if we didn’t have anyone to go food shopping for us. They then sent us an email to stop ordering deliveries because there was so many coming in. Instead of blaming students, how about you say ‘we weren’t prepared for this, we’ll find a way to fix it, bear with us.’ You know?”
This isn’t a new thing, universities have found a steady increase in student suicides over the last decade, there was a fivefold increase in students asking for support due to a mental health issue from 2006-2016, and these statistics aren’t surprising to students.
Left to their own devices, students are in charge of their own learning with very little support from their university and have been completely isolated from people in an unfamiliar environment. All of these factors could be potential stressors, as if university wasn’t stressful enough, adding a worldwide pandemic into the mix has only heightened these tensions and created an unbearable environment for some.
This is preventable and universities need to dedicate more of their budgets to mental health support towards the students paying their bills.
“You need to actually have those measures and support in place if you’re asking people to come to you” says Jemmett.
When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.
To hold the government and universities accountable and to include mental health support in the national league tables, sign the petition linked below created by mental health advocate and activist Ben West (@iambenwest on Instagram.)