YOUNG VOICES

Oxford Students Demand Better Mental Health Support

30/04/2015 11:34 BST | Updated 11/05/2015 20:59 BST

Oxford University Student Union is calling for increased support and respect for mentally ill students.

The Union is proposing a "mental health charter" which would set minimum standards of respect, confidentiality, and support for students facing mental health challenges.

Publicity has been brought to this matter due to the Sunday Times uncovering that in 2013 two Oxford students committed suicide within three months. They both attended Balliol College. Andrew Kirkman, 20, was studying physics and philosophy and died days after agreeing to go on medical leave and take a break from his studies. Three months after Andrew's death, first year philosophy, politics and economics student Jennifer Xu, who was on medical leave and suffering from depression, also ended her life.

Chris Pike, vice-president of welfare & equal opportunities at Oxford University Student Union, told HuffPost UK: "It would be overly simplistic to claim that every single student who takes medical leave or discloses a mental health condition is being poorly supported by their college.

"We at the student union, through our correspondence with students, have recognised a marked problem with some of the ways in which many colleges handle mental health cases. That’s why we are proposing a Mental Health Charter for colleges. We hope that colleges will recognise the importance of this, and will work proactively to adopt minimum standards that are suitable to their college."

Around 8% of Oxford University students, or more than 1,000 students, accessed the student counselling service between 2013 and 2014. This is a rise of 136% from the number of students accessing it in 2004.

Andrew* was a student at Oxford but was forced to drop out due to stress. Speaking to HuffPost UK, he said: "After a close family member became ill I quickly fell behind. My personal tutor suggested to me I might considering taking medical leave since I clearly would not be successful at Oxford. No attention was paid to the root of my poor academic performance, my intellectual capability was simply deemed insufficient.

"I felt unable to discuss my problems with my family as they were already troubled due to the illness. The university administration felt inaccessible because of the intensely competitive environment. My stress sky-rocketed. After my first year ended my situation had become overwhelming and I left the university.

"I think that a concerted effort must be made to support students. The transition from school to university comes at a particularly vulnerable stage of a person's life and the hothouse Oxford environment can easily become destructive to individuals."

The university has faced criticism from an article in the Sunday Times which called the pressured environment and situation surrounding the deaths 'toxic'.

A university spokesperson said: "The University and the colleges always act with professionalism and concern when students suffer difficulties. This was the case with all the students in question. The decision to take medical leave is one that is never entered into lightly. Oxford and its colleges are committed to helping suspended students return and reintegrate successfully.

"The increase in students accessing the University’s professional counselling services shows they are more prepared to seek support and also that the University and colleges are identifying students with difficulties earlier and referring them for help. The overall numbers accessing the counselling services is entirely in line with the rest of the sector."

*Andrew is a pseudonym to protect the student's identity.

If you've been affected by the issues in this article, please call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.