Death of Bristol students sparks national conversation on mental health

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A coroner is investigating three sudden deaths of students from the University of Bristol. The causes of the deaths have yet to be officially established, although tribute messages left on memorial pages established following the deaths suggest the students may have taken their own lives.

Two of the students have been named as philosophy student Miranda Williams, 19, and law student Kim Long, 18. The University of Bristol is not treating the deaths as suspicious, and has not connected the separate incidences.

Student Living Officer at the Bristol students’ union, Stephen LeFanu, told The Guardian that “starting university can be extremely difficult. Some new students are without their support networks from home for the first time, and will be experiencing new academic and social pressures. Rising fees mean that students are also increasingly under a great deal of financial pressure, with many taking on part-time work alongside their studies. Many people will also experience complex mental health difficulties, regardless of their environment.”

The shocking story has sparked a national conversation about the state of mental health services for university students.

A survey by the NUS published last year showed that over eight out of 10 students have suffered mental health issues, with nearly a third of students saying they had experienced suicidal thoughts. In 2014 the Office for National Statistics reported that 130 full time students in England and Wales had taken their own lives. Data shows this is increasing each year.

Mind, the mental health charity, have argued that data shows a rise in tuition fees has severely damaged overall mental health amongst students. Mind’s Stephen Buckley said: “Today’s students face an unprecedented financial burden with student loan and tuition fee debt higher than ever before. On the other side of this is the financial stress and uncertainty around employment on graduation. Both of these are major contributors to mental health problems like anxiety and depression.”

Shelly Asquith, the NUS vice-president for welfare, said in a statement in February that “The evidence is clear. The marketisation of education is having a huge impact on students’ mental health. The value of education has moved away from societal value to ‘value for money’ and the emphasis on students competing against each other is causing isolation, stress and anxiety. It has also forced institutions to compete aggressively against each other and put more money into advertising initiatives than student support services. The NUS is urging the sector to take these statistics seriously, and consider an urgent review of the level of funding given to mental health services, particularly counselling.”

Bristol University has released a statement saying “Sadly we can confirm there have been three unrelated student deaths this term. These events are always extremely upsetting and our thoughts are with the students’ families and friends. Our student welfare services are offering support to anyone affected. It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the cause of these deaths until the coroner has undertaken independent inquests, although we understand that there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding them. The University of Bristol has around 22,000 students. We will, of course, be investigating if there is anything we need to do to learn from these sad events but we have no reason to believe they represent a wider issue.”

While figures show that Bristol spent £32.15 on mental health services per student per year, Leeds was found to be spending only £16.50 – just over half of Bristol’s spending. Despite increasing mental health awareness and efforts on the part of the University, it seems that mental health remains underfunded.

If you are struggling with your own mental health, please contact Samaritans on 116 123 or visit the Samaritans website online. In addition, the University offers a counselling service alongside Nightline, a confidential service run by Leeds students offering help and support.

Christopher Tobin

(Image: The Guardian)

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