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World Mental Health Day 2017

Published: 10/10/2017

ECU's Senior Policy Adviser Megan Dunn blogs to mark World Mental Health Day 2017.

World Mental Health Day is here, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to take stock of where we are in higher education.

For the last few years student mental health has been high on the agenda of sector policy makers and universities; indeed in 2014 ECU conducted research into the experiences of students and staff experiencing mental health conditions. In the last month alone, Universities UK have a launched a new framework for universities to help improve student mental health and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a new report titled ‘The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health’.

While student mental health has rightly been a sector priority, staff mental health has taken a back seat. This despite the 2014 ECU research that found that only two in five (40 per cent) staff respondents who had experienced mental health difficulties while working at their current university had received support or reasonable adjustments. Perhaps this is because it isn’t considered a headline grabbing issue, or that it’s an employment issue, and higher education institutions are hardly alone in grappling with the issue of how to support staff with mental health conditions in employment terms. Whatever the reason, staff mental health in higher education has not been subject to the level of scrutiny as that of students.

For staff in higher education the statistics paint a picture, dominated by what we don’t know. In 2015/2016 0.5 % of all staff in higher education had declared a mental health condition, with 0.3% of all academic staff and 0.6% of all professional and support staff declaring a mental health condition*- an increase from 0.2% staff who had declared a mental health condition as found in ECU’s statistical report from 2013. If we place that number in context of the number of staff in the sector, that would be 2,423 staff in higher education institutions with mental health conditions.

However while it’s worth acknowledging the progress that has been made in increasing declarations, if we place this data in the context of the general population, it seems likely the number of staff with a mental health condition is much higher.

The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS), which has been carried out every seven years since 1993, offers some of the most reliable data for the trends and prevalence of many different mental health conditions. The most recent survey carried out in 2014 and published in 2016 is the source of many of the figures cited when discussing mental health in the UK. Its findings indicate that around 1 in 6 adults, 15.7%, had at the time of reporting a ‘common mental disorder’. If this were to be true for staff in higher education then the reality of the number of staff with mental health conditions could be around 63,000- a lot more than 2,423.

The difference between the numbers of staff declaring mental health conditions in higher education in comparison to those in the general population is stark and the reality is that we currently do not know what the true numbers are. It may well be that the instance of mental health conditions for staff in higher education is lower than that of the general population, but this difference is so large it seems difficult to argue that these figures are a true reflection of what is happening within our institutions.

What is clear is that if staff rates of mental health conditions are, in reality, anywhere near the levels of the general population, there are huge numbers of staff not declaring mental health conditions, and this poses significant challenge for the sector at large and raises broader questions about the environments in which we work.

When institutions are encouraging staff declarations, careful thought should go in to the institutional culture as a whole; any efforts to ensure that staff are told during induction that declaration of a mental health condition will be met with support if they hear of colleagues struggling to access that support, as UCU discuss in their guidance to staff.

And that support is crucial. For some staff it will be the difference between being in work and absence. For others it may mean being able to actively manage a mental health condition. For some it will dictate how they feel about their workplace and their employer. It is equally vital for universities that staff feel able to declare mental health conditions. For many institutions declarations help, not only to provide staff with individual support, but to point to areas where institutional policies, procedures, or environments may be contributing to negative environments.

While much of the picture of staff mental health conditions remain incomplete, it’s clear that there is more work to be done to make sure that the higher education sector is one where staff feel able to declare a mental health condition, and where universities are providing staff with the support they are entitled to.

For guidance on developing staff disclosure please see ECU’s guidance: Developing staff disclosure

For guidance on supporting disabled staff please see ECU’s guidance: Enabling equality: furthering disability equality for staff in higher education

Megan Dunn
Senior Policy Adviser, ECU

*HE stats report to be released November 2017