A survey finds that students and staff are not seeking help for fear of being treated differently
Of those students surveyed, over half said they had not received or spoken to anyone about getting support for their mental health problems. Photograph: Beau Lark/Corbis
Friday 13 February 2015 10.10 GMT
University staff and students with mental health difficulties are not seeking help for fear of receiving unfair treatment, according to a survey by a higher education charity.
The Equality Challenge Unit, which promotes diversity at universities, questioned more than 2,000 staff and over 1,400 students about whether they have disclosed their mental health problem and received any support.
Some 38% of staff said they had not told colleagues, with many fearing that they would be treated differently or thought less of. Less than half (40%) said they had received support.
One staff respondent said:
Mental difficulties remain a taboo in British employment. Many are happy to discuss long-term illness but shy away from mental health discussions. This is not necessarily the fault of the individual, but rather the general context generated by the working environment.
The problem is that there is always someone who is completely insensitive, judgemental and ignorant of mental health issues in any group of people and such a person is always going to discourage openness. Staff should do their best to educate such people and make it known that their attitudes are unacceptable.
On the whole, staff who did disclose had a positive experience, with 84% saying colleagues were supportive. Only 3% said people were unsupportive.
The survey revealed similar trends among students. More than half of students (54%) with mental health difficulties said they had not received or spoken to anyone about getting help. Most respondents thought they would not get the support they need or would receive unfair treatment.
Of those students who did seek support, 78% found it had a positive effect on their studies, while 5% had a negative experience.
The survey found that receiving support can also lead to students feeling like they are a burden. One student said:
The only negative effects are the ones that I feel always, the guilt of feeling like I am a burden, which does not come from anyone else apart from myself, but it makes me feel like I need to prove myself more and overcompensate for my condition.
Chris Brill, senior policy adviser at Equality Challenge Unit, who led the research, says that although support is available, many people aren’t accessing it.
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“We need to focus on developing environments that not only make it more acceptable and comfortable to disclose mental health difficulties, but also translate this into encouraging people to access vital support.
“People do seem to be more willing to disclose informally to colleagues and fellow students, to a very supportive response,” says Brill. “Although some people are fearful of receiving unfair treatment, that generally isn’t borne out by the experiences of those who have spoken to someone.”
National figures suggest that mental health difficulties within higher education are currently underreported as just one in 125 students (0.8%) and around one in 500 staff (0.2%) have disclosed a mental health condition to their university.
“This is a staggeringly unrepresentative number, causing real challenges for university provision and support,” says Rosie Tressler, advisory group member and networks and projects manager at Student Minds.
“Although a wide range of support and adjustments are available, we know that lots of students and staff are not currently accessing this help.”
Latest figures show that around 85% of UK universities now have a mental health policy in place, compared to just 27% in 2003.
University counselling and mental health services, however, are stretched beyond their capacity and restricted by funding cuts. Brunel University alone has seen the number of students seeking counselling more than double in the past 10 years – acommon trend throughout the UK.
This increase is also reflected in the NHS, with GPs noticing an increase in the number of young people suffering from mental health problems.
Universities UK have put together a list of guidelines for university leaders on how to ensure students and staff with mental health issues are fully supported.
In the report, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of UUK, said: “The challenge for the higher education sector is to ensure that universities offer effective and accessible support and advice for students at the same time as making it clear to students, staff and external agencies that institutions are academic, not therapeutic, communities.
“Universities must demonstrate how they can play a positive role in the community and wider society in destigmatising mental health difficulties and providing support to underpin talented students with mental health challenges, leaving behind the deficit model of support of the past.”