Academe gets in the right frame of mind

August 30, 2002

Emma is already planning her final-year dissertation for her degree in human geography at Southampton University. It will explore how self-help groups support people with mental-health difficulties, focusing on two groups within the Manic Depressive Fellowship.

Her investigation builds on coursework on the geographies of healthcare and welfare. But it also has a personal resonance. Emma has bi-polar affective disorder, also known as manic depression, and she attributes her success at Southampton - she gained marks heading towards a 2.1 in the past academic year - in part to the mentoring support she has received.

Emma, 23, started studying graphic design at another university, but left in the first term after having a breakdown. It was her first time away from home and the course did not suit her. But she was determined not to abandon her university ambitions.

"I put down that I had a disability on the Ucas form and was explicit as to what," she says. "Southampton offered me a place unconditionally, but suggested I came down for an interview to assess my needs. That is how the mentoring came about. I've been seeing Sue Meads (the mentor service coordinator) for at least 45 minutes every week since I started, more on occasions. She has offered me invaluable support that has helped me with my studies."

The Southampton mentoring scheme, about to enter its fourth year, helped 95 students in the past academic year, providing 1,220 hours of one-to-one support. Deb Viney, Southampton's disability coordinator, expects the service to be supporting between 400 and 500 students a year by 2005.

Students with diagnosed psychiatric conditions, including panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorders, social phobias and eating disorders, are given practical help in study skills such as planning and organising work. "It is not treatment or counselling - but it can complement both," says Meads, who leads a six-strong team of part-time mentors.

"The focus is very much on academic skills and academic goals, helping students achieve their potential." Mentors are also well placed to liaise with time-strapped personal tutors, if deadline extensions, special exam arrangements or time away from study are deemed necessary.

Emma testifies to how this advocacy can help minimise stress in a crisis. "The second year was a real rollercoaster for me - I was up and down and had a month off suffering from depression. Sue liaised with my tutor, which made things a lot easier to handle, kept me informed and encouraged me to come back. I feel a lot stronger, a lot more confident and am really enjoying my studies."

This form of mentoring seems to get results - even when intervention comes late in a student's university career. In the first year the scheme was in operation, three female finalists, thought to be at high risk of failing to complete their course work, were referred just ten weeks away from the end of their time at the university. After intensive mentor support, two completed their courses successfully and a third, well on track to do so, was permitted by the exam board to complete her outstanding pieces by autumn.

Southampton offers students with mental-health difficulties the kind of support encouraged by the Disability Discrimination Act part IV, which comes on stream next month. Under the act, an institution must not treat a disabled person "less favourably" than a non-disabled person for reasons related to his or her disability. It must also make "reasonable adjustments" to ensure that a disabled student is not placed at a "substantial disadvantage" in admission procedures, course content, teaching and exam arrangements.

At Southampton, students with mental-health difficulties have access to the university's assisted-learning centre, offering use of computers, specialist software, technical help and, crucially, a quiet place to study. All students are encouraged to disclose disabilities when they apply - something that those with mental-health difficulties may be reticent to do for fear of being stigmatised.

Sophie Corlett, head of policy at mental-health charity Mind, says that because of the level of discrimination people with mental-health problems can face in society, institutions have to work hard "to convince a student that the sensitive information they disclose will be used for positive purposes".

Sally Olohan, head of student-support services at Nottingham Trent University, agrees that students have to see a benefit to disclosure. "Unless that benefit is clear to individuals at the point of application or enrolment, there may well be a fear of discrimination," she says. "The more universities can be clear in their prospectuses and disability statements about the support they can offer to students with mental-health problems, the more likely those students will be to disclose their condition from the outset." But at whatever stage the disclosure is made, "it should be made clear the reason for requesting information is to trigger a referral for appropriate support. If a student chooses not to disclose their needs, support cannot be provided."

Not all students will disclose a mental-health problem before they start their studies. And, as 16 to 24 is the peak onset age for a range of mental illnesses, for some, the condition will first emerge during their time at university. The growth of mass higher education makes it harder for tutors to take on additional pastoral duties at a time when widening participation has brought students into the system who might have greater need for additional support. Universities must be geared up to meet the needs of the changing student population to avoid the risk of students taking them to court.

Olohan is lead author of the good-practice guide on responding to student mental-health needs and the duty of care responsibilities incumbent upon universities, produced by Amosshe, the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education. It spells out the boundaries of legal responsibility and offers good practice on the boundaries staff should set themselves when helping students with mental-health difficulties. The document is firmly rooted in promoting equal opportunity and mutual respect.

To date, there has been no case of negligence against a university for failing to support students with mental-health problems. But institutions need to have clear protocols to comply with data-protection legislation, which affects how information about students is recorded, stored and shared. They must be mindful of the Human Rights Act, as well as making sure students get the support they need, as enshrined in the DDA.

Having clear protocols and procedures in place will benefit both institutions and individual students, Olohan says. For instance, monitoring absenteeism can help identify students who are showing signs of mental-health problems. There are many reasons for skipping lectures, but one could be that a student is experiencing difficulties. If so, a prompt referral to an appropriate service can follow - or adjustments can be made to course work to meet the student's needs. Protocols should also be in place if a student exhibits signs of a mental-health crisis on campus.

The mental-health needs of students are now receiving greater attention from universities and colleges. In the past two years, a number of institutions - including Nottingham Trent, Coventry and Leeds Metropolitan universities - have appointed mental-health liaison officers. Three years ago, Lancaster University won funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to run a website promoting networks to transfer knowledge and experience among university staff working to support student mental health. It is well used.

Another tranche of Hefce-funded disability projects is in the pipeline. According to Mike Adams, director of the National Disability Team: "Student mental health is an emerging issue that institutions have recognised they need to address.

"And the DDA has helped concentrate minds - which must be good news for those who experience mental-health difficulties while at university."

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