Mental health at Exeter: a crisis waiting to happen?
Rhys Wallis discusses the pitfalls of the University of Exeter’s well-being services, producing the question: what needs to be done better?
The University Exeter – as we’ve all seen with the rebrand – prides itself on being “Number 1″ [in the Russell Group] for Student Satisfaction”, but with the cost-of-living crisis and the ever-present pressure of deadlines (not to mention social anxiety and the other pressures that go with being at University), is the University at all equipped to stay there?
The well-being support at the University can be described as erratic, if you’re being kind, not worth the webpage it’s written on if you’re not being kind, and overstressed, overworked and understaffed if you’re inclined to be a realist. This can most particularly be seen in the provision of ‘urgent support‘, which includes scant information about university-based support, choosing to direct students to facilities like the Moorings, Samaritans and Shout, rather than actively promote the available facilities at the University, such as Step 3/4. Navigating the main page is surprisingly easy, and if your idea of fun is scrolling through scores of hyperlinks – you’re in for a treat; the main problem, however, is that once (if) you’ve found the right service for you, you’ll be hard pressed to find an appointment this side of your graduation. The only way to get an expedited mental health appointment is to reach your crisis point, after which, it may be too late, as we have seen at this University in all too vivid technicolour. Or at least, the immediate cause for your crisis may be in the rear-view mirror, making any long term fixes much harder to find.
Navigating the main page is surprisingly easy, and if your idea of fun is scrolling through scores of hyperlinks – you’re in for a treat.
As far as university-based admissions of institutional inadequacy, look no further than the back of your student card. When looking for people to reach out to, there you can see: Estate Patrol, for emergencies; Student Health Enquiries, for day-to-day health issues; and Nightline, for someone to talk to overnight, or if things get bad. Nightline is a shining example of a great service, but it is run by volunteers and not an official University service. What sort of institution makes its customers provide their own primary urgent welfare support? Our University.
What sort of institution makes its customers provide their own primary urgent welfare support? Our University.
As usual, the best thing about the system is the people who work in it: the staff are tireless, and dedicated, even if, every now and again, their interventions do have unintended consequences. Working in a high-pressure, low-reward environment is taxing, draining, and never stops providing with more tasks: but they do it day in, day out, without complaint, or disgruntlement; it is the system in which they have to work which needs root and branch reform, from the ground up, with a partnership between students, student leaders, and the University, to finally provide students with an adequate route to discuss these issues, which we see all too regularly.
This marks a cause for concern, as there is no mention of a marked distinction between those students who utilise self-certified extensions and those who have an ILP which supports extensions. Surely, under a system which actually cares about the mental health of students over marking deadlines, those with an ILP supporting extensions would not be constrained by the 96-hour reduction in automatic extension length, right? That’s where you’re wrong. Whilst extension-supported students can still access unlimited self-certified extensions, they are still just 72 hours: with the self-set target on turnaround for mitigation requests still at 5 working days, a 3 calendar day extension isn’t enough to give students the peace of mind that a longer extension will be supported, and I would challenge anyone who thinks 3 days is long enough to shift their mental state enough to be in a suitable position to complete University work to give it a try. As well as this, whilst previously, students with an ILP could see 3 weeks of extension supported without additional evidence, now it is not enough to simply have an ILP for that length of extension: the situation must be “serious, extraordinary and/or complex”. It is, of course, still sometimes prohibitively hard to attain an ILP, so absolutely, having to prove your need once again is the right thing to do. Can you taste the sarcasm?
Amazingly, the Students’ Guild was able to add in Financial Circumstances as an acceptable reason for mitigation this year, but, again, at the aforementioned open question forum, Mr Freathy was at pains to differentiate between acute short-term financial difficulties (which would be covered by this addition) and long-term difficulties, which he intimated might not be covered and rather that the student would have to go through an ILP or ILP-equivalent process. In a final nugget of information from this forum, Mr Freathy is quoted as saying, “for the moment, anything less than 3 calendar days [for extensions] would be too short”. I will leave that to you, dear reader, to ascertain what you think might be coming in future years as a result of that comment.
From 2016/17 to 2019/20 (where the most recent ONS data on student suicide stops after the partial Covid year), 319 students took their own lives, at an average of 7.6 every month. Male students were almost twice as likely as female students to take their own lives, and undergrads were nearly five times as likely to take their own lives as postgraduates. This information, however, is incomplete because Universities are under no obligation to publish statistics on how many of their students commit suicide every year. In the wake of Harry Armstrong-Evans’ untimely death, his parents have put together a campaign to call for this to be made law. For more information on this, and how you can help put pressure on Exeter University to be an early adopter of Harry’s Law, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It seems that without our actions, nothing will change. The University doesn’t have the direction, the drive, or the commitment to see this through unless people make enough noise, so I guess it’s in our hands.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, then useful links are down below in case you need to reach out to anyone:
Samaritans – Call 116 123 (FREE and 24 hours a day) or email email@example.com.
SANEline – Call 0300 304 7000 (4.30 pm-10.30 pm daily)
National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK – 0800 689 5652 (6 pm-3.30 am daily)
Shout – TEXT SHOUT to 85258 (24/7 text support service)
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – 0800 58 58 58 (5 pm-midnight daily) OR use their webchat service.
Exeter Student Nightline – 01392 724000