Mental health disclosure is on the up – and that’s good

17 Jun 2021, 6:00

New UCAS figures show that a culture of positive mental health disclosure is growing among university applicants – and room for improvement, writes Nicola Turner

Over the past decade, there has been a 450 per cent increase in the number of people sharing a mental health condition in their UCAS application. It’s a positive sign that applicants are feeling increasingly comfortable talking about their support needs, and a testament to teachers’ and advisers’ efforts to drive this important change for young people.

In January, we surveyed first-year students about their experience of sharing a mental health condition in the UCAS application and explored the declaration data since 2011 for our new ‘Starting the conversation’ report. We also surveyed advisers about their experiences and the challenges they face.

Reassuringly, the vast majority of advisers (86 per cent) encourage pupils to share a mental health condition, but there is a clear sense of discomfort when someone chooses not to. Almost two-thirds let applicants make this decision without further intervention, and only a third say they would have an additional conversation if they felt it would be in the pupil’s best interest.

I fully sympathise. As a teacher and head of PSHE, my focus was often on breaking down barriers around asking for support. Lingering stigma around mental health meant some pupils (or their families) were reluctant to seek or accept help, which can leave you feeling powerless and concerned about their future welfare.

And this was long before Covid and its impact on the nation’s mental health – particularly those whose education has been disrupted. Not only have school closures had an impact, but the services around schools that supported vulnerable pupils have been interrupted too.

There are many valid reasons they may choose not to disclose

This predicament is magnified for those supporting young people making the transition out of secondary education. Although the UCAS application allows and encourages individuals to share a mental health condition with their university or college, half of the applicants with an existing mental health condition choose not to share this information at all, and some of those who do opt to share in alternative ways.

Many advisers face a moral dilemma: if a pupil is vulnerable to mental ill health and would benefit from support, do they have a responsibility to advise the institution to ensure their safety? It’s a difficult balance to strike between keeping a student’s trust and keeping them safe. More than three in five advisers felt it would be beneficial to have additional guidance about this. So to that end UCAS is responding by developing an online training module and toolkit to help those who support applicants with mental health conditions.

Advisers care deeply about their pupils and it is hard to see them reject support, but the applicant must make the ultimate decision about what they share, and there are many valid reasons they may choose not to do so. However, misconceptions about how this information is used is never one of those, so we must reassure students that collecting that information is purely about better supporting them.

Students are keen to know more, and many tell us they check what mental health and wellbeing services are available before they apply. However, only 57 per cent of advisers informed students about support, with many feeling they simply didn’t know enough – and 97 per cent thought it would be useful to have more information.

I couldn’t agree more. Advisers just don’t have the time to get to grips with the intricacies of student support at more than 400 universities and colleges around the UK! That’s why we’re working with expert organisations like Student Minds, UMHAN and Universities UK to improve how we communicate information and guidance that supports advisers.

Everyone knows sharing a mental health condition with a university or college will not disadvantage any student’s chances of an offer. That’s an excellent start in creating a culture of positive disclosure, but there’s still room for improvement. Now, we must ensure all advisers are equipped with the resources they need to help young people to take advantage of the support on hand.

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