Birmingham University has been accused of failing students suffering mental health problems after two young men took their own lives less than a year apart.
Students seeking counselling are reportedly being told to see their doctor or to access NHS services because of a lack of resources at the institution.
The revelation comes after an inquest into the death of one student heard how he had fallen into a ”black hole” in his dealings with Forward Thinking Birmingham, a local NHS mental health service for under 25s
It prompted a coroner to place a Preventing Future Deaths Order against the organisation to take steps to protect others battling similar problems.
Dan Collins, an English and creative writing student, was assessed by hospital mental health professionals only weeks before he died by suicide and was found dead in Moseley Bog, near the university, in April.
The 22-year-old had been referred following family illness and a break-up with his girlfriend of five months. A previous ex-girlfriend had reportedly contacted the university twice earlier to raise her concerns regarding his mental health.
Collins met members of the university’s student welfare team three days before he died and told them he was going to arrange an appointment with his GP.
The inquest heard Collins had spent two days in Queen Elizabeth Hospital three weeks before his death, yet was discharged following an assessment by Birmingham’s Rapid, Assessment, Interface and Discharge (RAID) team.
Experts ruled he did not meet the criteria for sectioning, was not a risk to himself or others, had “full capacity and insight” and was willing to accept help.
James Bennett, assistant coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, said the gap in services the inquest had highlighted meant he would write a report to prevent future deaths.
He added: “I do think that Dan fell into a black hole in some way. I am concerned that there is an ongoing risk to other people who are in a period of crisis. They may fall into that black hole if all the responsibility is placed on them to make contact with services where they are in a period of crisis.”
The case echoes incidents at other universities that Huffpost UK has reported on – including Liverpool and Bristol – where desperate students struggled to access mental health support before they died.
Student news site The Tab carried out an investigation just weeks before Collins’ death which revealed the University of Birmingham had only six qualified mental health counsellors for 30,000 students. They were prompted to look into the situation after the suicide of another student in August 2017.
Engineering student Andrew Worden, 22, took his own life after he had to retake his third year.
His family lawyer later told an inquest that his mother, Karen Worden, blamed the university for not informing them of his struggles.
“The university should have contacted us if they knew something was drastically wrong,” she told HuffPost. “We cannot understand why they didn’t make us aware so that maybe we could have helped.
“They have a duty of care towards their students.
“With the number of young people who take their own lives at universities every year you’d think that it is something that should be looked at.
“It has been hell for our family. Absolute hell.”
The inquest heard Worden had started to self-medicate with drugs to keep himself awake for longer and to cope with the stresses of academia, but he continued to struggle with assignments.
While he was studying at home in Cornwall to resit his third year exams, his body was discovered in a Falmouth hotel, along with a number of notes.
The Tab editor Anna Paulins accused the university of “fobbing off” students by encouraging them to access mental health services themselves rather than providing counselling on site.
She said: “It’s ridiculous that despite these two deaths the university still does not have adequate resources to provide proper one-on-one counselling services.
“Instead students are advised to seek out self-help groups outside the university which isn’t always suitable. I tried to get counselling myself and was told I’d have to wait weeks.
“We understand that cuts have been made across the board but students lives are at risk.”
A University of Birmingham spokesperson said more than 100 staff with a £1m budget were dedicated to student wellbeing which was a “key priority.”
“Among the team are six therapeutic counsellors, plus additional counsellors brought in during busy times,” she said.
“This resource is supported by another six Wellbeing Advisors, all qualified with a range of specialisms.
“In addition, there are a further three qualified Mental Health Advisors and pastoral support available through the University Chaplaincy and through the Guild of Students.
“We have recently trained 65 student-facing staff in Suicide Prevention Awareness and another 50 staff in Mental Health First Aid. The focus is on preventative work to keep students healthy.
“Mental health awareness is integrated into the University’s provision, with increasing numbers of staff in a position to provide support.”
She said student referrals to NHS services was not through a lack of resources at the university, but because it was deemed appropriate.
The spokesman added: “In one of the cases the coroner described a ‘black hole’ in mental health services into which an individual fell.
“It is incorrect to suggest this remark was linked to the university. It was in fact related to other services external to the university. The coroner made no criticism of support provided by the university.”
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah yesterday called on Vice Chancellors across the country to ensure they prioritise student mental health, ahead of 400,000 new students preparing for Freshers weeks.
“Collectively, we must prioritise the wellbeing and mental health of our students – there is no negotiation on this. To make this happen, leadership from the top is essential,” he wrote in a letter.
Useful websites and helplines:
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 UK and Ireland (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
You can call Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Monday-Friday 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41.
Maytree is a sanctuary for the suicidal in north London in a non-medical setting. For help or to enquire about a stay, call 020 7263 7070.
Rape Crisis services for women and girls who have been raped or have experienced sexual violence - 0808 802 9999
Survivors UK offers support for men and boys - 0203 598 3898
UPDATE: This article has been amended to clarify there was no specific criticism of the University of Birmingham’s mental health support services by the local coroner, and to add an additional response from the university about their provision of mental health support to staff and students, provided after publication.
This article is part of HuffPost UK’s series investigating student mental health across the UK. If you would like to get in touch with our reporter, email George.Bowden@huffpost.com.