Secret suffering as mental health stigma silences anxious voices

Fear of appearing weak may discourage staff and students from disclosing illness. Jack Grove writes

November 22, 2012

University staff are failing to report mental health conditions, with just one in 500 confiding in employers, a study has found.

Just 250 academics from a workforce of 181,180 disclosed mental health problems in 2010-11, according to a report by the Equality Challenge Unit.

The study, Equality in Higher Education: Statistical Report 2012, published on 20 November, also found that just 490 professional and support staff out of 200,605 employees had reported such illnesses.

With one in six Britons suffering from some form of depression or anxiety at any one time, according to Department of Health figures, the disclosure rates represent a clear case of under-reporting, said Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University.

"I suspect individuals do not want to show weakness or vulnerability," said Professor Cooper. "There are very few occupations where people feel safe enough to report something because there is a stigma associated with mental health - and it is clearly something we have not overcome in academia. People feel it might affect their promotion chances or the credibility of the scientific work they do."

The report also found that just one in 150 students - 0.7 per cent - disclosed mental illnesses to their higher education institutions in 2010-11.

Gary Loke, head of policy at the Equality Challenge Unit, said the survey showed that many people in the academy with mental illness were suffering in silence.

"If you do not disclose you have a problem, universities cannot help you," he said. "Institutions are generally very supportive to disabled staff, but people need to feel they can come forward and talk about their mental health problems."

Disability and inequality

By contrast, the report shows a steady increase in the number of staff and students disclosing disabilities to their institutions, with 3.2 per cent of all staff and 8 per cent of students now registered as disabled.

It also reveals the continuing pay gap between men and women, particularly among senior staff.

It found that 31.9 per cent of male academics earned more than £50,000 a year - almost twice the proportion of female academics (16.9 per cent). The proportion of male professional and support staff earning over £50,000 was more than double that of their female counterparts (7.3 per cent compared with 3.3 per cent).

Men were paid almost a fifth - 19.4 per cent - more than women when the mean average was compared and 16.3 per cent more when the median was considered.

The number of female professors also remains low, with women making up 19.8 per cent of all academics with that rank in 2010-11 and only 15.1 per cent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

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