*Trigger warning: suicide*
When hearing of another another student death at UEA, Aaron Hood could not let another day pass by without doing something – anything-about it. Following several late nights of brainstorming with his partner ways to alleviate this ‘mental health epidemic’ on campus, Aaron explains how mental health grassroots movement, #NSFW, was born.
“We know a couple of people who have made attempts this year…it shouldn’t be a standard that we accept; it’s horrible. We were getting more and more upset about it.
“When you see the advertising, ‘UEA is wonderful’, you think: it’s a bit jarring when your experience isn’t so wonderful [yet] UEA has the potential to be a wonderful place,” he says.
Aaron, 23, is a second year Politics student, though his university experience hasn’t been particularly plain-sailing for the most part. Having joined UEA in 2014, he passed his first year second time around before taking a leave of absence halfway through second year due to deteriorating mental health. Prior to this decision, he too, had attempted to take his own life.
During first year, he often felt lonely and isolated. “I wasn’t going to lectures. I had ballooned in weight and was always drunk or in the process of getting drunk.
“It felt like no one noticed, and when you start thinking that no one noticed how much pain you were in you’d start thinking no one cares and it just spirals.”
Coupled with diagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, which was the target for several years of being bullied at school and lead to early signs of depression from the age of 12 onwards, Aaron has also experienced a series of “abusive” relationships. “I didn’t know what constituted as a functional relationship. I wasn’t happy. I thought ‘no-one’s happy in a relationship; it’s just a myth’ and you condition yourself to thinking in this way.
“I started to even think that I was a myth. I didn’t feel like I had any control or agency. I was left to my own devices and I didn’t really feel very supported by the mental health services as a whole. I had to fight to get CBT sessions. That was just managing stress and worry; it was a bit more than just stress and worry – I wanted to die.”
After receiving a phone call from one partner at the time who had broken up with him and then hung up, an intense impulse to alleviate ages of pain took over. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to hurt myself. It’s good that it wasn’t successful or that I hadn’t put too much planning into it.”
However, Aaron was not – and is not – alone. According to the Office for National Statistics, in the year up to July 2017, there were 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students in England and Wales. That accumulates to a total of 95 suicides, albeit procedures for recording suicides may differ across universities. Looking closer to home, death by suicide at UEA is only recorded when categorised as such by a coroner and in any case, the university does not hold data regarding the cause of all student deaths.
Theo Brennan Hulme was the fourth student to die at UEA within a 10-month period. Commenting on this reality, Aaron expresses: “It’s shocking how bad it’s gotten but I’m not surprised. I could feel this coming before I had to stop studying for a while. People I was speaking to; it was bubbling up in the community even then. A lot of people I know who inter-collated for mental health reasons haven’t come back. There is a lot of ill-will towards the uni because they felt pressured to inter-collate.
“I feel a bit guilty that I could have intervened and done something sooner but I didn’t think I had the power to. And what do you do?”
Considering the bigger picture, he suggests that “The NHS is overworked so they pass the buck to Student Support. I can’t blame anyone but the government and austerity because if you cut services to the bone and expect everyone to do more for less, things are only gonna go to shit.”
Then, upon his return to UEA this academic year, Aaron’s attitude towards the mental health services on campus evolved into one of empathy and a hunger to make improvements. “It’s not a crisis service. It’s not meant to be one…From my experience, they are willing to engage and improve as a service and I think they’re brilliant. They’ve helped me so much this year. They need more help to be more brilliant.
“There are a lot of problems here that need to be addressed and…there seems to be the appetite for change everywhere and it’s about bringing everyone together. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do with #NSFW.”
#NSFW, or #notsofuckingwonderful, is a small, student-led grassroots movement, recently formed to encourage a culture in which students feel able to talk about their experiences with mental health confidentially. Their official launch took place on Friday 15thMarch, just around the corner from where ‘We Will Be Heard’ was taking place in the square. #NSFW members stood outside of the Registry Building where the Vice Chancellor’s office is situated, holding plaque cards inscribed with messages relating to mental health and suicide at UEA.
Surprised by the amount of engagement and support they received that day and since, Aaron says, “People have opened up to us…We have been in meetings and people want to work with us to help.” Among those willing to engage with #NSFW is the Vice Chancellor himself whom Aaron described as “a very lovely, genuine human being who is overwhelmed and needs our support.”
His partner, on the other hand, Flora Wheeler, a second year History of Art student, is somewhat more sceptical of the VC’s actions. “…while I can say that I liked him as a person, I cannot shake off the feeling that there is something very inappropriate about taking a pay increase when…support services remain understaffed and underfunded.”
Indeed, at the end of 2017, Professor David Richardson accepted his third pay rise, with a new salary of £253,000. This is the average salary of University Vice-Chancellors nationally, according to a report from the Office for Students (OfS).
Meanwhile, regarding wellbeing and counselling capacity in the SSS, while the number of fractional posts reduced in the academic year 2017/18, the overall fulltime equivalent (FTE) increased. This means that while there were fewer individuals, counselling hours actually increased, contrary to popular belief that counselling availability had been reduced.
In response, a University representative claims that ‘UEA is committed to investing in student support services. Demand on student support services this academic year has increased by 30 per cent and, as a result, the Vice-Chancellor has allocated an increase of £600,000 to recruit around 30 new staff in student support roles across the university residences, schools of study and the Student Support Service.’
However, as Aaron remarks, “You can’t just chuck money and hope it will go away but it’s obvious that the demand is there for more resources in terms of money and staff and counsellors. Right now people are dying so something needs to be done now. Before now.”
After all, he adds, “Mental health is so individual. What can be more individual than your own mind?
“Loads of people are in so much pain. I care about this place very deeply and students because I’ve been there and it’s rough.”
Since returning back to UEA and for the first time in his life, Aaron now feels like “part of a community, that people love me and I’m not just a burden or someone that people tolerate. People want to be around me for me. I get involved with a few societies…” This includes hosting a new stand-up comedy night, the Hoodenanny, a creative outlet which acts as a sense of catharsis for him: “On stage is the only time I’m not performing.”
Although Aaron admits to still having occasional bad moments, “the darkness is kept at bay a lot easier…People need to know how bad it can get. People don’t want to cope; they want to live. You need to know that you deserve it. It took me a while to realise that and a lot of people helped me along the way.
“I’ve always been blessed with an amazing family with a unique tapestry of its own mental health issues. I’ve got some good friends that I’ve opened up to. Talking about it a lot has helped. Whatever you’re going through you deserve to get better.”