"I think student lives are being put at risk." Cris Oehling Pascual is a 20-year-old studying Physics and Philosophy at the University of Bristol. She's also co-founder of Keep Our Communities, a protest group opposed to proposed changes of the uni's student support system. So often student movements are irrelevant, performative and pretentious. Not so here. The discussion is vitally important, people are dying.
In a period of 16 months, seven students have died by suicide at Bristol. They are Miranda Williams, Daniel Green, Kim Long, Lara Nosiru, Elsa Scaburri, James Thomson and Justin Cheng.
Between 2007 and 2015 the number of student suicides in the UK increased by 79 per cent, from 75 to 134. It's difficult, though, to ascertain the exact number of suicides at a given institution. Often they don't even keep a record. There are 136 members of Universities UK, a pressure group representing universities. A flat average would work out around one suicide per uni per year. But that doesn't account for the more intensive environments of the Russell Group, widely seen as the country's most prestigious universities, of which Bristol is a member.
It is still an outlier.
By comparison there have also been seven suicides at Sheffield, another Russell Group uni, but that's over the course of five years, leading up to 2015.
Inquests ruled Bristol's seven not linked. But, of course, they are. The mental health of each person is a congruent narrative and suicide is a consequence.
Since February another four more students have died suddenly, three in the fortnight leading up to May 5, results of coroner's inquests are pending.
This year there's been one talking point on Bristol's campus. A conflict between the university and its students over proposed changes to the provision of pastoral care. At the moment, a network of 150 student wardens called senior residents live in halls at a discounted rate to provide support to other residents, largely freshers.
A senior resident's responsibilities are broad. They provide directions to the train station, impromptu cooking lessons and, in some cases, mental health support. Ella Fraser is one such "SR." 23 years old and in her third year of studying Social Policy, we spoke on Valentine's Day. Ella had organised a speed dating event that evening and was putting the final touches to her Cupid costume. "Don't even," she warned, after a chuckle.
After struggling with her mental health in first and second year, Ella found her senior resident's support so valuable she wanted to become one herself. It's a good job she did.
"There are two students who wouldn’t be alive if I wasn’t here," Ella tells me. "I don’t say that lightly either.
"And when I say they wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for me, I mean they wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for a senior resident being here, it wasn’t me. I just did what anyone would do in that position. It's the fact that I was here, in halls."
Following a series of deaths and significant pressure from the student body, the university acted, putting forward a new model of care. Bristol would "professionalise" and focus its service around three specific locations, a 'hub' each in the accommodation blocks of Stoke Bishop and Clifton and another in the city centre. It would replace the 150 strong crop of senior residents with 24 "chief residents" and 96 senior residents - some working out of hubs, others living in halls.
The ratio of live-in wardens to students would increase from 1:45 to 1:100, though. That's the crucial part. Ella explains: "My concerns are that students who are highly vulnerable often don’t think that they’re vulnerable.
"I’m given 40 students that I’m responsible for, who in theory I should see once a month but in reality I see once a week because we live in the same building. Nine times out of 10 I notice something’s wrong with them before they come to me."
The other contentious aspect of the proposal is describing the change as a move to "professionalise."
"I think they were desperate to fix the system but they’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water."
Ella and her fellow senior residents are technically volunteers, remunerated by way of 75 per cent reduction in rent because their role dictates where they live. However, the residential life mentors would be paid and, therefore, professionals. Professional does not mean a mental health professional, a counsellor or therapist.
"They wouldn't have any mental health experience," Ella says. "All training will be done in house, so actually the difference is not enough for them to say it’s a professional coming in.
"I think they were desperate to fix the system but they’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water with a whole new system that we don’t know anything about."
Making a statement on February 14, that same day, the Director of Student Service, Mark Ames, said: "We are very pleased our students and staff are engaging passionately on the issue of student well-being. This review has been driven by our desire to provide the best possible support for all our students and we are confident that feedback received so far will help us to create a consistently outstanding model of support for the future.
"Our proposal will provide more, easily accessible support for students from professional services staff on duty 24/7 and 365 days a year who will have this as their primary and only focus - not as an additional role as current staff do. They will be supported by students who will continue to live in halls, maintaining the peer-to-peer assistance we know is much valued in the current system.
"The current stage of consultation with students, staff and alumni ended last Friday (February 9). We have heard concerns about resource levels, particularly regarding the live-in student support, and will be addressing this in our revised plans which will be presented to staff and students next week.
"Developed in partnership with students, staff and Bristol Students’ Union, this proposal feeds into a whole-institution approach to support which includes major new investments in well-being in our academic schools, and in central services such as our student counselling and health services."
This all came about because of how poorly the university's changes were received by the student body. By February 3, a protest group had gathered enough impetus to orchestrate a march.
Cris Oehling Pascual is a co-founder of that group, Keep Our Communities. "We’ve been experiencing a problem, around mental health," she says. "The counselling service is completely overflowing, we’ve had seven student suicides at Bristol in the last 18 months. That’s obviously caused a very stressful situation at the university and they’ve realised that something has to change.
"My main concern is in a hub-based system it’s much harder to visibly see your warden, your deputy warden, because that’s not going to exist anymore - it’ll just be someone sitting in an office. I don’t see how that provides more support, it seems like a cost-cutting exercise."
50 of them marched. In the pissing rain, they walked down Whiteladies Road from Stoke Bishop, Bristol's main halls, to the Victoria Rooms, a university building. Cars got stuck behind them and sounded their horns in anger. The protestors lit flares, beat drums and chanted.
A yes/no university-wide referendum on the proposed changes was called, after a petition gathered 400 signatures, enough to trigger a vote. Should Bristol SU oppose any model for pastoral support which includes [hubs]?"
Cris explained: "I think student lives are being put at risk. I genuinely believe this will have an extremely negative impact on students and we will continue to have student suicides.
"Nobody wants a situation where the number of student residents is going to go down from one in 20, one in 40 to one in 100, that’s bizarre. Why would you want that if you want more support? Students want more support and are being given less.
"We’ve put out letters from senior residents, from wardens, JCRs, heads of schools, but you need to show the university you care. You need to take to the streets, we’re going through a referendum, you deploy every single thing you can in order to show you’re against something."
They voted in that referendum, on February 15. Less a landslide, more an asteroidal impact. 92.1 per cent 'Yes' (the SU should not support the relocation of pastoral care to centralised hubs,) 7.9 per cent 'No.'
Bristol caved and adjusted to a new, new model.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We expect all universities to take the wellbeing of their students seriously and ensure that they are providing them with the right support.
"We support Universities UK in calling for higher education leaders to adopt mental health as a strategic priority and its new framework. Our proposals outlined in the children and young people’s mental health green paper recommends improving education and training for students and staff about mental health and plans to set up a new national strategic partnership focused on improving the mental health of 16-25 year olds."
Callum Jones is 23 years old. He graduated from Bristol last year in Engineering and Mathematics. His best friend was called Andy.
They used to train athletics together, running the 400 and 800m. Andy was studying Chemical Engineering at Birmingham when he died. Callum says they "were pretty much the same person. I've always associated training with him, when I go to the track, I can't help but think about him. I still do, a lot."
We spoke at a pop-up in the Bristol SU foyer. JOE partnered there with the Lions Collective, a group of barbers encouraging men to talk about their mental health during a haircut, as part of the SU's Mind Your Head campaign. It's rare for anyone to be allowed as far into an individual's personal space as their barber - what better opportunity to open up.
"I'd lost a best friend but his mum's lost a son, and that's something else," Callum says.
"It's strange because, if you yourself haven't had any experience of that depression or that suicidal mental state it's very hard to put yourself in their position. There's a lack of understanding, still, from students, from staff. Everyone. Universally there is a lack of understanding of the state those people are in. In general it's very easy to place a mental illness or a mental health issue as something that you can just snap out of.
"Access to mental health officers and mental health help at the university is appalling, it's so hard to find anyone in the first place at Student Health. The help and the support is pretty poor, once you do manage to get an appointment. It all builds up around exam season, you get this huge influx of people trying to seek mental health support, they can't handle it."
Ruth Day is a fresher at Bristol, studying for an MSci in Maths and Philosophy. She arrived at university with a mental illness and disclosed it. In the first week she was invited for a meeting with support staff to form a safety plan in the event of a crisis. Her number was saved to the duty phone so senior residents would know her address in an emergency.
"After an overdose, I told the pastoral team and a senior resident took me to hospital and kept me company while the doctors were running tests. One night I did in fact call the duty phone and two senior residents came to my room about five minutes after I called and stayed with me to keep me safe until a taxi could take me to hospital. Without their quick response, I probably wouldn't be alive today."
"I have a senior resident in my flat who checks up on me after a rough night and catches up with me time to time to check how I'm doing and to let me know that he's there for a chat if I ever need one. The senior residents in my hall genuinely care about students and are proactive in supporting us."
A Bristol Students' Union spokesperson said: "The Students’ Union officers and staff are obviously deeply upset and shocked by the news of recent student deaths at Bristol. We acknowledge that these are deeply complex and traumatic issues and are regularly liaising with staff at the university to ensure they are doing everything they can to understand these issues and offer the appropriate support to staff and students within the university community.
"The Students’ Union continues to fulfil its key role in creating communities of support for all students and in signposting to more intensive routes of counselling and support where appropriate."
A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: "The chief and senior residents will continue to live in halls, as will the heads and deputy heads of residential life. There will be a Student Support Centre, open 24/7/365, for each Student Village, all the staff and students working from the student support centres will be required to be highly visible across all of the residences. We will be investing more in this service than in the current service.
"The payment of chief and senior residents is not what is meant by ‘professionalising’ the service. Instead, it refers to a move from a service largely staffed on a part-time basis by staff and students doing so in addition to full time work or study to a service in which these roles are the primary focus for the individuals employed to undertake them.
"This is not a cost-cutting exercise, as the cost of the Residential Life Service will increase from £2.6 million to £2.9 million. An additional £1 million per annum is also being invested in a new Student Wellbeing Service which will help students navigate the range of support available.
"As is being experienced nationally, our counselling and GP services are facing a significant increase in demand. We have therefore invested in the services with 1,800 additional hours of counselling, as well as group drop-in sessions, workshops and self-help resources. We have also permanently increased staffing within the two services.
"Waiting times at the Student Counselling Service are within our expected service standards and compare favourably with similar provision in the NHS. Our Health Service is able to offer same day mental health appointments.
"There was an exhaustive consultation process with staff, students and other stakeholders which clarified the aims of the new service and refined the proposed model based on the helpful feedback."
Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano on mainland Europe, it's also considered the world's most dangerous. 3 million people live in its shadow, some on its actual slopes. The volcano is overdue an eruption of the same kind that fossilised Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79AD, casting foetal humans in a pyroclastic flow of molten stone and ash. In that event, settlements on the summit's approach will have a literal second of warning before they are eviscerated.
The Italian government has made a standing offer of €30,000, to all 600,000 people living in the volcano's lethal "red zone," if they leave. They won't. It's about community, it's about home.
Our country's brightest young minds get taken out of theirs at the age of 18. They're sent to new cities, surrounded by strangers and confronted with the bare-faced reality of paying £27,000 to be lectured on Marx, all while mainlining a depressant called sambuca like it's saline solution.
Bristol is an outlier - a warning to the rest of Britain. We need to take better care of our students.
- Anyone can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email [email protected]or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch.
- On March 23 CALM, Campaign Against Living Miserably launched a petition calling for ministerial responsibility of suicide prevention and bereavement support. Sign the petition here: http://bit.ly/SuicidePetition2018