For security staff, any help with student mental health is welcome

With UK academics no longer on call, the dispensing of assurance in the small hours has been left to guards, says George Bass

July 20, 2022
The Good Samaritan - parable of Jesus, Luke chapter 10 verses 33-34:
Source: Getty / Istock montage

The news that the UK’s health service could receive a £3 million boost to tackle student mental health issues has gone down well across the campus – particularly in the guard room.

Our round-the-clock presence on site means it’s often us who get the call when a student is exhibiting signs of distress. In some ways, this makes sense; we have the best knowledge of the grounds and are probably the fastest runners outside the sports science department. Our regular patrols also mean we know what to do when we find someone who needs help.

Take the collapsed drinker we found in a car park who kept screaming that she was pregnant. We asked her who she wanted to talk to. As soon as she said “Lex”, we found the name in her phone and gave the bloke a call – and then tried to calm him down when he learned he was going to be a dad.

However, we don’t have the pastoral skill set to handle some of the more serious welfare issues. Although guards are trained in first aid, we still only get half a morning’s suicide awareness instruction – despite the number of attempted and, sadly, successful cases we’ve attended over the years. Even before the reported rise in suicidal thoughts among young people during lockdown, we were issued rescue knives in case we ever need to cut through ligatures.

Years ago, several nominated lecturers would take turns carrying an emergency mobile phone that we could contact out of hours. If a student was at the counter pulling their hair out over a forgotten assignment, we’d phone the duty tutor, who would assure the student that an extension would be arranged. It no doubt saved a lot of kids dropping out – or doing something worse.

But more recently the dispensing of assurance in the small hours has been left to us. So I’m relieved to know that next time I run to a reported “commotion”, I might be able to call on the help of a professional – provided, of course, that the professional picks up their desk phone and isn’t now working from home like the white-collar fire wardens we used to call on.

The new scheme is promising clinics on campuses, where students can access a range of mental health services. If they go ahead, I hope they will also give us simple guidance on which service to direct people to. We could have used that one night recently when a student who’d become highly erratic was sectioned, then discharged, but then refused to leave the hospital grounds. The hospital phoned the police, who moved her on. By the time the squad car was back at the station, however, the student was in the hospital doorway, claiming to have no memory. The cops were unable to refer her to a local mental health facility as she hadn’t registered with a nearby GP. So they drove her back to her address on campus, which was still unlocked from the previous night. It fell to security to monitor her and provide emergency support.

Post-Covid, it’s getting harder for us to tell who is displaying signs of mental health difficulties and who’s just had a bad day. Recently, for instance, a fresher began screaming at us because we hadn’t unlocked the music practice suite she’d booked for 11am.

When we explained that it was only 10am and showed her the email from her course director warning us to stop admitting students outside their allotted slot, she put her head in her hands and kept shouting that she’d paid 10 grand to be here.

No matter how many seemingly trivial incidents we encounter, however, we’re mindful of the tragic case of Natasha Abrahart, the student whose social anxiety disability led to her taking her own life. And when we encounter kids who seem genuinely at the end of their tether, we don’t recommend they go on to online support sites for therapy via PowerPoint. They’ve probably had their fill of lectures, plus we’re conscious of how quickly self-help can lead to self-doubt and self-harm. Instead, we keep the kettle topped up, and see if we can get a dialogue going. We can’t be their mates – requests to befriend them on social media receive an instant “no” – but we can try to show them it’s not all gloom and doom.

One lad used to look out for me whenever I patrolled the campus on the night shift. He was switched-on and well spoken, but clearly needed interaction beyond the keyboard.

I was happy for him to tag along while he shared some of his worries, and I tried to give him a few pointers. But when I let slip that I was an atheist, he forgot his worries and focused on mine. Apparently, my soul was heading for damnation unless I accepted the Lord.

I told the lad I’d think about it, and he went off looking lighter. I’m still an atheist, but every now and then I get to be a Samaritan.

George Bass is a security guard at a UK university.

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