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UEA students slammed by experts over mental health campaign

PUBLISHED: 15:42 15 October 2019 | UPDATED: 15:42 15 October 2019

The University of East Anglia. Picture: EDP Library

The University of East Anglia. Picture: EDP Library

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Students have been accused by Norfolk health chiefs of potentially "doing more harm than good" with a mental health campaign highlighting deaths at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

21-year-old students Jess Barrett, left, and Chris Matthews have launched the Concrete Mental Health Crisis campaign. Photo: Concrete UEA21-year-old students Jess Barrett, left, and Chris Matthews have launched the Concrete Mental Health Crisis campaign. Photo: Concrete UEA

The county's director of public health Dr Louise Smith has written a two-page letter to voice "deep disappointment and concern" about the tone and content of September's edition of UEA student publication Concrete.

And the row has escalated, with students accusing UEA bosses of being "anti-free speech" for removing copies of the newspaper from on-campus bedrooms.

The publication launched the Concrete Mental Health Crisis Campaign after four UEA students were found dead within 10 months - three on university grounds.

Two of the deaths - of Jonathan Walker, 23, and Jess Fairweather, 20 - have been ruled as suicides by coroners.

Dr Louise Smith, Norfolk County Council's director for Public Health. Picture: ANTONY KELLYDr Louise Smith, Norfolk County Council's director for Public Health. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Inquests are pending into the deaths of Nick Sadler, 25, who was found in the university's lake after having been missing for 11 days, and Theo Brennan-Hulme, 21, who was found in his room on campus.

But the content of the campaign has prompted the letter to editor-in-chief Chris Matthews from Dr Smith, sent on behalf of the university's multi-agency suicide prevention group.

The letter warned that "the decision to describe the suicides and associated issues at UEA [as] a 'mental health crisis' is more likely to do harm than good", and said "repeated references to the names and ages of students" was "also a real concern".

A spokesman for the university said the letter suggested the Concrete team undertook awareness training on best practice guidelines for suicide reporting.

The UEA sign, Earlham Road entrance. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe UEA sign, Earlham Road entrance. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

He added: "The concerns centre on reporting which did not meet the Samaritans' or National Union of Journalists' best practice guidelines on media reporting of suicides, and which the group unanimously felt had the potential to only increase the risk of harm.

"The letter makes it very clear that the UEA multi-agency suicide prevention group has no interest in stifling debate or scrutiny."

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The multi-agency group includes the UEA, the UEA students' union, the NHS, public health, police, ambulance, Samaritans and Mind.

Mr Matthews, 21, said: "You've got this big multi-agency public body - the NHS, the council, the university and the Samaritans - and they're all sending a letter.

"It's pretty deplorable that the university is running away to public health to try and get some grounds and to try and get us to back away.

"It's straight up intimidation. It would be laughable if it wasn't about life and death."

He added: "We want to make sure we're doing the right thing and doing it in the right way and it did make us question perhaps whether we were doing that.

"But I feel that after the support we've had from Stephen Fry, Gina Miller, MPs, students and parents that really is reassurance we're going about this right."

Concrete's campaign, which seeks to highlight the issue of mental health on campus and hold the university to account, has been supported by the Norwich South MP Clive Lewis and Beverley Bishop, the mother of Mr Fairweather.

But copies of the newspaper containing coverage of the campaign were removed from university accommodation ahead of students' arriving at the start of the academic year, after fears the article could "increase anxiety and distress" for students.

A university spokesman said: "Copies of Concrete were not removed from any other locations. That decision was taken on the basis that the article named students who died in specific halls and was likely to only increase anxiety and distress for new students moving into those halls."

Mr Matthews said: "Rather than opening up dialogue, they're trying to silence us. You could say it's anti-free speech, stopping people from reading the paper."

And he added that the aim of the campaign was to highlight the issue of mental health and call for improvements to support for students.

- For help at UEA contact SSS either by calling 01603 592761 or emailing studentsupport@uea.ac.uk.

- Need support or someone to talk to? The free Samaritans helpline can be accessed by calling 116 123 from anywhere in the UK.

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