Students urge for improved welfare services at University of Exeter
The recent inquest into the death of Exeter student, Harry Armstrong Evans, has highlighted significant flaws in the University’s wellbeing services which have caused student mental health struggles to remain largely undealt with.
Following data released through a Freedom of Information Request, Exeposé can reveal that the number of students contacting wellbeing services has more than doubled since 2017 – increasing from 3,044 students in the 2017/18 academic year, to 7,138 in 2021/22. Furthermore, from September 2021 until August 2022, Estate Patrol received 180 welfare-related reports – all of which involved mental health support and the administering of first-aid treatment.
Between 2016/17 and 2022/23, the University also confirmed that there have been eight deaths of registered students; 5 of these deaths have been determined to be suicide and the other 3 “are likely to be determined as suicide”, according to a spokesperson for the University.
There has also been a significant increase in requests for assignment deferrals and extensions, particularly since the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2019. During the 2018/19 academic year, a total of 2,723 deferrals were recorded; this figure skyrocketed in the 2020/21 and 2021/22 academic years, with 11,587 and 10,297 deferrals being recorded respectively.
As for extensions, 7,308 were recorded in the 2017/18 academic year, which later increased to a huge 89,811 in the 2021/22 academic year – averaging at three extensions per student for this cohort. Though several reasons are applicable to extensions, it is undeniable that mental health played a significant role in this increase.
Covid-19 also took an unsurprising toll on the student community in this respect. Students were left feeling isolated and without ample support during the pandemic years of 2020-2022, which saw numerous students struggling with their academic commitments. The impact that the new mitigation policy will have on this trend of increased extensions is yet to be seen. However, students have stated that this 72-hour policy has marked the loss of a “lifeline” during stressful assessment periods.
7,308 [extensions] were recorded in the 2017/18 academic year, which later increased to a huge 89,811 in the 2021/22 academic year
Such was the case for Harry Armstrong Evans. In an email to his personal tutor, Harry wrote “I have been in isolation in my virtually empty hall of residence. I’ve spent so much time isolated by myself in my flat with almost no human contact. It really has had an adverse effect on my mental health”. Due to a lack of official training on suicidal ideation, Armstrong Evans’ personal tutor was unable to identify any ‘red flag’ indicators of a mental health crisis. Harry’s parents, Alice and Rupert Armstrong Evans, remarked that their son was a victim of a “silent student pandemic”, which encompassed students on a nationwide scale and led to many being left in the cold.
A survey carried out by Exeposé suggests that approximately one third of polled students are unaware of the full extent of support that they are entitled to seek. Fifteen per cent of polled students claimed that they were not aware of the Nightline service, which provides callers with anonymous out-of-hours support, whilst thirty per cent of students said that they were unaware of the Wellbeing Centre at Reed Hall.
Approximately one third of polled students are unaware of the full extent of support that they are entitled to.
Although this suggests a high proportion of awareness, since these are the main forms of wellbeing support signposted by the University, more could be done to ensure the entire student body is made aware of these support networks. Levels of awareness for on-campus support services such as Exehale and Residence Life were even lower, with a respective 35 and 45 percent of polled students being unaware of their services.
Moreover, thirty percent of students claimed that they were unaware of the support that their personal tutors could offer them. One student mentioned that they “don’t even know who [their] personal tutor is”.
Students who were aware of the University’s welfare services highlighted multiple issues they ran into when trying to access support. Several of the respondents to Exeposé’s survey complained about repeated referrals, evidenced by the University’s decision to outsource many welfare-related cases to services such as NHS Talkworks and Nightline. This has left struggling students feeling confused about who to reach out to for support, and afraid of the formality of the process. The procedure of referral has left many students falling through the gaps, feeling like their mental health issues are too simple or too complex for any particular service.
One respondent commented “Well-being takes an age and [then they] try to pass you onto talkworks. Talkworks rejected me for being too mentally ill. Nightline are amazing but as an unfunded student run organisation they are being taken advantage of”.
This illustrates the challenges faced by some students in trying to reach out for help. Furthermore, some students have commented on difficulties with cancelled appointments with services such as Talkworks, where the student has been left without answers, and in some cases, being the one having to chase up the service instead of the other way around. Even when individuals make the first form of contact with wellbeing services, many vulnerable students are left without adequate access to the support they need.
Talkworks rejected me for being too mentally ill.University of Exeter student
This process of accessing student wellbeing services creates a barrier to reaching out, meaning many students are deterred from receiving the help they need. Forty-five per cent of polled students said they felt they have not been ‘well supported in [their] experiences with the University’s mental health services’.
All of this comes at a time of increased interest, following the inquest into the death of Harry Armstrong Evans, in which the Coroner stated that “My central finding will be that the welfare service did not proactively respond to those concerns and did not provide the necessary support for Harry.”
In response to these claims of inadequate wellbeing services for students, a University spokesperson said:
“We are deeply saddened by Harry’s death and the family’s loss. We continually review and improve the wellbeing support we provide based on evidence and learnings, including from rare tragic cases such as Harry’s, and we will learn the lessons to enhance our support and operations further, specifically in the areas recommended by the Coroner.
“Student health and wellbeing is always the University of Exeter’s priority, and we are acutely aware of the current mental health challenges for young people and the difficulties facing external services. While each individual case can vary, among the most common indicators of declining wellbeing can be disturbed sleeping patterns, difficulties communicating and withdrawal from everyday activities, amongst others.
“We have invested significantly in student welfare and wellbeing support in recent years to ensure students not only have access to our broad range of services but also so anyone seeking support is seen as quickly as possible in order to receive either initial, confidential assistance, or be referred to further specialist support if required.
[We want to] ensure students not only have access to our broad range of services but also so anyone seeking support is seen as quickly as possibleUniversity of Exeter spokesperson
“We also welcome and support the recent Universities UK guidance on suicide prevention and their recommendation on a trusted student contact when there are serious mental health concerns. A significant number of the UUK recommendations have already been implemented at the University of Exeter, and we will implement all the recommendations.”
Additionally, the University of Exeter has recently announced its plan to change student welfare management. This plan will endeavour to overhaul the current welfare system, and will include a review of staff training on mental health, a new case management system, and a new computer system to manage student welfare records. This overhaul follows the Coroner’s advice at the inquest of Armstrong Evans’ death.
This overhaul of student welfare services offers hope for improvements to be made, however the University has warned that staff should be made aware of “potential weaknesses” in the existing system until changes are fully implemented. Only time will tell of the success of this, but it surely cannot come soon enough for those students who are struggling now.