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Record Numbers of Students Are Disclosing Their Mental Health Status

What is it like as a fresher when you tell your university that you have a mental illness?

by Ed Southgate; illustrated by Marta Parszeniew
01 May 2019, 8:00am

Collage by Marta Parszeniew. Images by Val Vannett via Wiki; CC2.0; student via pxhere; CC0; mental health form via; CC0.

It felt like a daunting prospect when, three years ago, I started my studies at Bristol University. I was coming out of an intense battle with depression and anxiety, having spent the previous couple of years on and off antidepressants. And I had no idea what to expect of the years ahead, or how they would impact my mental health.

On the one hand, it was exciting. Just about anyone who goes to university knows the feeling: it was my first time away from home, off to study what I most enjoyed with a real opportunity to work out what I wanted from life. It was like a fresh start for my outlook on everything. On the other, it was terrifying. What if I couldn't manage it alone? What if my depression and anxiety got the better of me? Would there be anyone I could speak to if I was struggling? Would this all turn out to be a mistake?

I wasn't alone in feeling like this. A Times investigation found that the number of students disclosing a pre-existing mental health condition to their prospective universities on application had soared by 73 percent in the four academic years between 2014 and 2018. In a sense, I joined the growing number reaching out for support during what can often be a difficult transition from home life. But what's caused this rise? And, more crucially, are universities doing enough to support students as they transition away from home?

Bristol University has intensely felt the devastating impact of poor student mental health. In just two years, 11 students at the university are thought to have died by suicide; three are believed to have done so within three weeks during last summer's exam season. Since then, students have protested, signed petitions and lobbied the university to improve its wellbeing support as soon as freshers start.

Leah, a third year student at Bristol, disclosed her mental health struggles on her application because she "wanted help". She spent her 13th birthday in a food clinic, struggling with depression, anxiety and food issues throughout her teenage years, and was deterred from going to university at 18 because "there was no way I could have survived on my own". Instead, she enrolled at 19, determined to "survive in the wild, as it were". Despite telling the university about her illness, however, a lack of communication resulted in Leah struggling to access support and settle in. She thought there would be a "bigger deal" made about her disclosure, that someone at the university would take her to one side to discuss her needs, but she heard nothing.

Instead, she had to disclose again and again to her various tutors – essentially "strangers" to her, at that point. "They knew what halls I was in, but the warden never spoke with me, even though I was a danger living on my own," she says. "I also feel like I should have met my GP. The first time I had met my GP was when I said 'I have lost my mind,' but I should have known her before I said that. It was really uncomfortable."

Leah's first few weeks at Bristol then resulted in a lot of chasing. "It was the polar opposite of what I thought was going to happen. I thought it was going to be really, intensively coddling, bubble wrapped. I wish they had done that." As a result, she developed a cycle of thinking of, 'I’m ill / I'm not ill enough,' believing that if she was as ill and as in need of support as she thought, then surely the university would be reaching out to her. "I was so unhappy with myself as a result. I'd always had this to a certain extent, but it was a new kind. I wanted this help; it wasn’t my fault that it was hard, but you get into this cycle of thinking you’re not trying hard enough."

Bristol is currently ranked in the top ten UK universities. Leah fears that the research-intensive, highly-academic environment doesn't always foster the most awareness or understanding of struggling students. "It's not so much that they only wanted to focus on academic stuff, but it was like they had no concept that I could have a strong output and still really be struggling," she says. "If you're doing fine academically, I think there's an assumption that everything else is fine. There was a feeling that I had to purposefully get worse if I was to get help."

For Georgia, who graduated from a non-Russell Group university in June of 2018, the response from disclosing depression and anxiety on UCAS "has only been beneficial" regarding the support she received once she arrived. "I can’t generalise and say it was because it wasn’t a Russell Group university, but I feel like my university wanted to support the whole student rather than just focusing on academia and results," she says. "There was a lot of support for other things as well as academic stuff."

Her university took an active approach in supporting her when she arrived. In her first week, her tutor encouraged students to come to her at any point in the day with anything they might want to talk about. Georgia, recently discharged from CAMHS and wanting to build a support network, told her tutor then about her struggles in person. "At that time, I had none of the support that I used to, and starting university felt like a difficult time," she explains. "I felt if I could start building up some sort of support network quickly then that is only going to be a good thing."

She adds: "When I disclosed it on that day we arranged to meet up regularly and check in on how things were going. She made it quite clear from the beginning that I was going to be supported throughout the three years and that it wouldn’t be something that would be seen negatively or used against me, and that actually they were there to support me." While her three years were "not plain-sailing", this first meeting helped Georgia settle in and feel supported through the transition from home life. Alongside meeting with her, Georgia’s tutor actively communicated with other staff members, with Georgia’s consent, to help other lecturers support her.

Looking back, she feels that university became a “turning point” insomuch as looking to the future, and is unsure whether she would have stayed at university if the university was not as supportive. She added: "I do feel very lucky, I know this isn’t the experience of everyone at university."

Yet, while the number of students disclosing has dramatically risen, there remains a fear among applicants of what impact such a declaration might have. A quick search, for instance, will find blog posts from worried applicants on student forums asking whether universities will doubt their ability to cope with the demands of higher education with mental health difficulties.

Serena, a second year student at the University of Hertfordshire, shared similar concerns to Georgia when applying, especially since she wanted to study Primary Education. "I was really worried about them not considering me being a good candidate because of my mental health problems," she says. "They might think, 'She’s got depression and anxiety, how is she going to be a good teacher?'" However, the fact remains: it is illegal for universities to allow such a disclosure to be a discriminatory factor against your application.

When she started university, having disclosed her struggles, her head of year contacted her personally to say that she had seen her mental health disclosure on record. She told her that she should let her know if there was anything she could do. It made reaching out easier when she did need support: "I don’t usually like asking for help. If she hadn’t got in touch with me at the start of the year to let me know I could get in touch with her if I needed, it would have made it a lot harder."

Meanwhile, some Russell Group and non-Russell Group universities have begun implementing specific initiatives to ease the transition for students who disclosed a mental illness or other disability. Worcester University invite students to meet a wellbeing adviser in either August or September, while Oxford University offers a one-day transition event to meet key staff and to allow students to move into their college before their peers.

King’s College London offers a two-day transition event. Rose, 21, attended this event and said it made the transition into university life easier. "When I firmed King’s, Hannah [a support coordinator] got in touch with me to say that she would be there throughout my course, and if I was having any issues related to my condition I could come to her," she says.

During the transition event, Rose was given a tour of the campus, shown various facilities, such as where the disability offices were, and also attended a session on the support available to her. She says: "It was certainly helpful. It was good to know the lay of the land, and it meant I knew better what I was getting into."

While disclosures to universities is certainly going up, and while some universities – or at least individual tutors – are responding positively, it seems there's still more to be done in terms of how institutions process and respond to this information at every stage from the admissions process right up to students starting their degree.

No one has ever said the transition to university is easy, for the very good reason that it rarely is. With the rise in students disclosing mental health difficulties reflecting a greater degree of willingness to seek help, it is positive and encouraging that future students are feeling safe enough to do so. The time is now for universities to help their incoming freshers as best as they can.

@ed_southgate

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