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Let’s talk about our mental heath

Published: 15/05/2015

For Mental Health Awareness Week 2015, Senior Policy Adviser Chris Brill shares what staff and students have told us about when it comes to talking about mental health

One in four adults experience mental illness at some point during their lifetime. One in six adults are experiencing symptoms now. Does this surprise you? Has anyone every spoken to you about their experiences?

Last year we asked over 2,000 university staff and 1,400 students who had experienced mental health difficulties whether they had spoken to anyone about their experiences. The more open people are about their mental health difficulties,  the less ignorance and stigma will exist around the topic. This in turn, will support universities to reflect on any disabling practices and improve them.

The majority of respondents had not officially spoken to anyone in their university about getting support or adjustments. As one survey respondent put it:

‘Mental difficulties remain a taboo in British employment. Many are happy to discuss long-term illness but shy away from mental health discussions.’

However, the survey found that many staff and students had spoken to their peers, and, importantly, the vast majority indicated that they had been supportive or very supportive.

‘[other students were] extremely supportive, helped put me in touch with counselling, advised me to speak to my academic tutor in case I fell behind with academic work as a result, looked out for me and most importantly always kept my information confidential.’ (Survey respondent)

This is incredibly encouraging, particularly given that a major reason given by respondents who hadn’t spoken to people was fear of how they would react. This should be highlighted and addressed in university working and learning environments.

‘We have a peer-assisted learning scheme which is particularly helpful as first years are taught and supported by second years. I know that other universities have “parenting” schemes to a similar effect. There will always be variation between students who would rather speak to staff about experiencing difficulties, and those that find second-year students more approachable, but this gives more options and covers a wider area.’ (Survey respondent)

National charities, such as Student Minds, facilitate peer support programmes.

What can universities do to encourage disclosure? Clear information key, outlining positives and negatives of disclosing, providing clarity on what happens when someone has disclosed, and including case studies and examples of the support provided.

‘Information needs to be widely accessible for all students, not just those with previous or current experience of mental health issues. If it is known to everyone, friends of people experiencing issues, or people experiencing new mental health symptoms will be better equipped to access support immediately.’ (Survey respondent)

And, although counselling services are important, and incredibly in demand (as mentioned in a recent article in the Guardian), the support and adjustments available at universities are much wider than this. Changes to the way courses are delivered and assessed, how work is completed, how office and lecture spaces are configured, can all and in many cases do, make a difference.

Our research Understanding adjustments: supporting staff and students who are experiencing mental health difficulties, contains many statements from staff and students, including recommendations for universities, and examples from universities of activities underway.

The University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN) are currently running a campaign ‘I chose to disclose.’ For more details see http://www.umhan.com/i-chose-to-disclose.html