A SPIKE in student suicides has raised questions surrounding the state of the mental health services in the university and beyond.
The revelation comes amidst growing concerns from students regarding waiting times and the reliability of the mental wellbeing services that are available to them.
A Freedom of Information request to the University of Stirling revealed that three students took their own lives during the 2018/19 academic year, compared to zero the year before.
The university only began recording student deaths by suicide in 2016.
According to the Freedom of Information request, there is no information held by the university relating to reasons for not recording suicide figures prior to then.
Masters student Charlene Gregaitis-Schickler hit out at the university two weeks ago, when she replied to a tweet that was issued by the University of Stirling.
Just over a year ago, she attempted to take her own life when she became overwhelmed and felt unable to cope.
She knows first-hand how challenging university life, combined with mental health issues, can be.
On Halloween, the university tweeted: “We would like to remind all our students of the emotional health and wellbeing support that is available to them.”
Charlene, 23, replied: “Hire more counsellors and reduce the time on waiting lists for students to receive support.
“Your team is incredible but there just isn’t enough to meet the needs of the student.”
Although she believes the mental health and wellbeing team are “phenomenal”, she is frustrated that “the long waiting times are detrimental to struggling students.”
She said: “On October 31, it was the anniversary of overcoming a really difficult decision I almost made.
“I have a few mental illnesses that I suffer with. The university tweeting that on the same day made me angry because even though I’ve received help, it wasn’t easy to get there.
“Maybe it’s a coincidence that things had to get really bad before I got somewhere. Everyone should receive mental health services in a timely manner,” she added.
When Charlene applied to mental health services and made an enquiry, she tried desperately to get meetings set up.
She received regular e-mails asking if her issue had been resolved, which it hadn’t, and kept getting “pushed about.”
She said: “Months would go by. Then, my sister died. That was around the time when I was finally able to meet with someone. I then only had six sessions to talk about the issues we had and unpack this really big event.
“What I take away from my experience and sharing experiences from other students, is that there has not been enough done in the past.
“A lot of my friends feel like they never got the help that they needed until it was breaking point.
“I hope that nobody ever finds themselves in my position because I did almost die. It’s not the university’s fault, and it’s not that I didn’t get support in the end.
“I just hope that if someone starts to feel isolated, or alone, or upset, that they receive what they need.
Recently elected Union President Chloe Whyte agrees that there is a lot still to be done and admits that she herself reached breaking point in her first year of university.
She said: “Some of my friends were the ones who lost their lives last year, so I am pretty affected by this.
“One of my main motivations for running for president were because I felt that the state of mental health at the university is reaching crisis point.
“Nothing’s improved since last year. We’re working really hard on our mental health strategy but in the meantime, we need help.”
Laura Downie, a third-year psychology student, reached out for help in her first year of university, following the death of her best friend.
Although the help that she is getting is “fantastic”, she too feels like people have to be at breaking point before they are noticed.
She said: “I went through three mental health workers to get to the one I have now.
“The university just doesn’t have the resources to deal with the amount of people.”
Laura had some particularly negative experiences with previous mental health workers.
She said: “My second one was awful. After my best friend died, he said things like ‘You should be able to deal with that’ and ‘it’s not really a big deal.’”
She added: “It was really unhelpful, and it almost put me off using the university’s services. He made me feel worse rather than better.
“I went back to my flatmate and cried for hours afterwards.”
Fourth-year politics student Charlotta Lundahl, who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in the Spring semester of 2018, has had positive experiences with the campus GP and the university services.
She said: “The process with the uni services was quick, from registration to receiving appointments.
“They never made me feel stupid and they were very open about what they could provide, one of those being a mental health mentor.
“When I had issues with my mental health, I felt that they [the uni] really had my back.”
Jill Stevenson, the university’s Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, said: “The wellbeing of our students is an absolute priority and we encourage any students seeking support to access the extensive range of support services available.
“We are developing a new Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy with the Students’ Union and other partners, and will continue to engage students further in this process.
“Recently, we recruited an additional full-time qualified Mental Health Adviser, bringing our total to two.
“Appointments to see a mental health advisor are within two weeks at the moment, which is a substantial improvement from last year.
“Long waiting lists are a problem across the sector. More and more students are coming to university and are feeling more and more confident to disclose mental health conditions, which we actively encourage.
“However, part of the reason for longer waiting lists are due to GPs referring people to the university services due to a lack of funding in the NHS.
“This can become really problematic, as some students’ needs will be more effectively met in the NHS. Our duty of care should not be a replacement service for the NHS but we need to continue to work together to provide the support that’s within our remit.”
She was also keen to highlight that “the NHS and emergency services should always be the first port of call is someone feels that they are in a serious crisis and their life is at risk.”
There have been huge structural changes within the university’s mental health services, partly in response to student feedback.
It has also been announced that the Scottish Government will invest an extra £20 million to provide 80 new counsellors across colleges and universities, which will enable the university to increase their counselling team from 2019/20 onwards.
Further information on student support, including opening times and out of hours services, can be found on the Student Services Hub webpages. Students can also access support from the Students’ Union.
If you are struggling and in need of help, contact Samaritans on 116 123 for free, or visit www.samaritans.org
Featured image credit: simpsonandbrown.co.uk