Higher Education Propaganda: Bringing Lobbying Groups to Task

Originally published as ‘How Propagandists Manipulate the Facts to Sell the University Dream’ at HuffingtonPost.com.

It was the blog‘s lackadaisical attitude towards student wellbeing that got to me. The way it claims that higher education has “been shown” to benefit the ‘health and well-being’ of students, without providing a shred of evidence (and in the face of thisthis, and this). But it’s the misleading employment claims that show how far propagandists are prepared to go to sell university places.

For those that are unaware, Universities UK is a membership charity that (as you might guess from the name) acts on behalf of the majority of the UK’s universities. The aims of the organisation (which recently came under fire for its stance on gender segregation) include to “support universities in their primary aims of educating students, carrying out research and innovation, and strengthening civic society”.

The blog post in question was written by the Universities UK ‘Policy and Data Analyst’ and uses new ONS data to make a number of claims, including that those with a degree have a lower unemployment rate than those whose highest qualification is an A-level. Unfortunately that’s not what the data shows.

The first page of the ONS report states that the graduate figures refer to all those who have been through higher education, including recipients of diplomas and certificates typically awarded to those with professional experience. For instance, the Chartered Management Institute offers a Level 7 Award to senior managers. It’s not really surprising that for those with such an award unemployment should be low. We can assume, then, that had the unemployment figure only related to those with degrees, it might have been considerably higher. Of course, those casually reading the blog won’t know this. They’ll assume that the author of such an authoritative blog has got the facts right.

For an organisation that describes itself as “the voice of UK universities” it’s embarrassing that their official blog features such an obvious misuse of data. At best it’s carelessness, at worst, a deliberate attempt to foil the public. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

Further claims in the blog relate to average salaries. Glancing at the impressive graph gives the illusion that graduates in their forties have average earnings twice as high as non-graduates, and that the data is a good prediction of what today’s graduates can expect in the future. Neither is true.

In his bestselling book, The Black Swan, statistician Nassim Taleb discusses the problems with using averages, warning, “don’t cross a river if it is four foot deep on average”. Those university candidates looking at average earnings data as an indicator of their future prospects should be just as wary – not only because of the issues with averages, but because of the changes in the jobs market over the past twenty years.

The highest earning university graduates, who are in their early-forties according to the graph, graduated at a time when the jobs market and economy were completely different. The proportion of the labour force with a degree has (according to the Guardian) doubled in twenty years, slashing the usefulness of a degree as a way of differentiating between job candidates. Additionally, economic turmoil and the shift towards a ‘knowledge economy‘ have created a skills gap that has forced almost half of graduates into non-graduate roles. The effect on average earnings is that, according to the same ONS report, 21-year-olds with an apprenticeship are earning more than 21-year-old graduates.

None of this is to say that university is not worthwhile for many. Of course it is. But to judge the value of a degree based on the success of those who graduated twenty years ago is like using a 1993 edition of the Financial Times to pick investments. Those considering university would do far better to ignore the propaganda and do their own research.

Is Higher Education an “Excellent Investment”?

In November, Universities UK, the higher education advocacy group, published a blog post entitled ‘Higher education is an excellent investment, even in an economic downturn’. The post is basically an advert for university, albeit with a number of questionable, and, at times, frankly, embarrassing claims.

Yesterday their social media team tweeted the post as the deadline for applications approaches, presumably aware that November applications were down on the previous year. I wouldn’t normally be critical of a blog post, but let’s take a look at its main arguments:

1. “Those with a degree are more protected from the recession than those without.”

The author refers to data from the ONS indicating that graduates enjoy a higher employment rate (87% versus 83%) and lower unemployment rate (4% versus 5%) as compared to those whose highest qualification is A level standard. Leaving aside the fact that the percentage differences seem pitifully small (particularly considering that graduates are more likely than non-graduates to have middle-class parents who are in a position to help them find work), a simple bit of background reading appears to show that the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion.

The ONS report clearly states on the first page that its definition of a graduate isn’t just those with degrees (as the author suggests) but also “those with higher education”, which covers all sorts of vocational awards and certificates that can be granted to those who are already established within a field. It’s not hard to get work after graduating if your employer is paying for the qualification.

Looking more closely at the ONS report, a crucial piece of information that the blog post doesn’t reveal is the nature of the employment. According to the ONS report, almost half of recent graduates were working in a non-graduate role (i.e. one that didn’t require higher education or a degree). They might, for example, be pushing trolleys in a warehouse. (Use of warehouse safety helmets is probably not the kind of “protection” the author wanted us to have in mind.)

2. “The profile of earnings for graduates is rising much more quickly than for non-graduates, and graduates are earning more than non-graduates over their lifetimes.”

The author displays the difference in earnings through an impressive adaption of the ONS’s chart, which – by narrowing the x-axis, starting the y-axis at £10,000, and removing apprenticeships from the chart altogether – makes it look as though graduates are very quickly earning more than twice as much as non-graduates annually. The problem with the graduate earnings data is that it’s largely meaningless. Not because it’s untrue, but because it’s based on the average earnings of graduates.

If there are four recent graduates in a room, each struggling on £10,000 a year, and a fifth graduate earning £110,000 a year walks in then the average earnings of the group will jump from £10,000 to £30,000.  This is unlikely to console them. As Fraser Nelson points out, the highest-earning professions – including law, medicine, and dentistry – tend to require degrees, skewing average earning figures for other graduates. Then there is the discrepancy between institutions, and the impact of unusually wealthy graduates.

The other reason why those thinking of applying to university should be extremely sceptical of the average and lifetime earnings data is that those at their peak earning age (of around 40) graduated in a completely different economic environment. University degrees were still relatively unusual, with 12% of the UK population having degrees in 1993, compared to 25% in 2010 (according to the Guardian) and only 19.3% of students participating in higher education in 1990 (according to this parliamentary report) compared to almost 50% today. The earnings data also doesn’t account for the negative impact of struggling to find work during a recession (which has been known as the ‘scarring effect‘). In short, the data is virtually useless as an indicator of what today’s graduates can expect their average earnings to be in twenty years.

The ONS’s average earnings data does have some use, though. It shows that a 21-year-old graduate earns on average less than a 21-year-old with an apprenticeship – a fact that’s unclear from the blog post’s chart due to it conveniently leaving out apprenticeships.

3. “There is personal benefit in attaining higher education, which has been shown for many aspects of life, including health, well-being and personal development.”

This is the part that really got to me. At least with the other claims, the author refers to some evidence rather than resorting to saying only that it has “been shown”. Let’s look at what’s been shown for a moment.

  • - Demand for support services has risen by nearly a third since 2008.
  • Student suicides rose by 49% between 2007 and 2011.
  • - In an NUS survey of 1200 students last year, 80% reported feeling stressed and 13% claimed to have had suicidal thoughts.

Evidently the well-being benefits of higher education are not as clear-cut as the author might like to think.  The author’s half-hearted attempt to suggest otherwise, which reads more like an afterthought than a genuine point, is an indication that Universities UK does not see the wellbeing of students as a priority issue (despite its relevance to the ‘lost generation‘ claims that the author refers to).

Although Universities UK hosts a Working Group for Promotion of Well-being in Higher Education, the group receives no funding or advocacy support and is run by charitable university support staff in what little time they can find around very demanding university roles.

4. “Society as a whole also benefits by greater engagement through civic engagement, citizenship and lower crime rates, as described in the recent BIS report. It is clear that higher education is not only a good investment for those individuals who directly go to university, but it is a good investment for the UK’s economy and society too.”

Actually, most of this is probably true. Having more young people in university probably does increase ‘civic engagement’ and deter people from questioning authorities and institutions. And it probably does support the economy, at least in appearance (and until the next financial crisis).

But for those weighing up whether or not to go to university, these factors should be completely irrelevant. You should dismiss them, just as you should all the other misleading claims about higher education being a good investment. If you decide to go, go because it’s what you really want, not because you think it’s a safe option or that it’s expected of you. And certainly not because it will make you a ‘good citizen’.

For ideas about alternatives to university, take a look at www.notgoingtouni.co.uk

The Universities UK blog post was edited after this post was published, and now includes the following: “(chapter 3 of the supporting analysis for the higher education White Paper 2011 summarises some of the studies done on the wider benefits from higher education).” Unfortunately for Universities UK, the White Paper contains no evidence of the benefits to “health, well-being, and personal development” that the blog post claims have “been shown”. They have not responded to a requests for comment.

In Praise Of Student Support Staff

At a Student Welfare event I was speaking at yesterday, I tried to catch a student support advisor after one of the sessions. She had left the room swiftly, and was on the phone in the corridor outside. There was a look of concern on her face, and at first I wondered if it was a logistics issue – perhaps a son or daughter that needed picking up from school, or some other personal matter. But it wasn’t anything like that. She was phoning to check on a student at her university that was having a particularly tough time.

I don’t often meet someone who shows this level of compassion and concern for others, but when I do, it’s invariably a member of student support staff. There has been an increase in the number of articles examining student mental health and questioning whether universities are doing enough, but very few of these have recognised the extraordinary work done by existing support staff.

One of the things I’m most proud of from my time at NUS-USI earlier this year was the groundwork we laid for an Open Your Mind awards programme. We wanted to recognise not just things done by students to promote mental health, but also the tireless work done by support staff to help thousands upon thousands of students every year. It wasn’t that we thought staff would want the recognition (they are too selfless for that) but we hoped maybe it would help others to see why student support is so valuable.

I don’t know why support staff don’t get more recognition. Maybe because they don’t make a fuss about things. Maybe because others think they are only ‘doing their job’. Anyone who has spent time with support staff will know that this is not the case, and that they give a huge amount to others. Nobody gets involved in student support for their own interests – they do it because they care, deeply.

Resilient Youth: Using Psychology To Prevent A ‘Lost Generation’

This article was originally published with the Huffington Post.

Switching on the news last night, I heard a young graduate telling a reporter, “I’ve done everything that society told me to do, and I’m still not finding employment.” As his words trailed off, the despair in his voice seemed to capture a generation that’s feeling let down and unsure where to turn. Increasingly, recent surveys from NUS and The Prince’s Trust suggest, the blame seems to be turning inwards.

There is research showing that in previous periods of high youth unemployment, those affected continued to be hampered professionally and socially long after the recession ended – a phenomenon that has been described as the ‘scarring effect’. It’s data like this that gives some weight to the otherwise melodramatic claim that today’s young people will go down in history as a ‘lost generation’.

One explanation for the scarring effect is the psychological impact of unemployment. Research links unemployment with a perceived loss of control, and what some psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’ . Feelings of helplessness are a predictor of depression . They are also linked to decreased work performance – a correlation that exists not just in the western world, but globally .

There might be good reason for young people to feel helpless. 75 million young people around the world are out of work, the value of a degree has tumbled, and the so-called ‘scarring effect’ suggests that history isn’t on their side. But in the last recession psychological research and interventions were less developed. And what the latest research tells us is that helplessness is not inevitable and it can be reversed .

When a young american psychologist called Martin Seligman was researching depression in the late 1960’s, he found that if people were subjected to repeated and uncontrollable stressors then they would often come to resign themselves to their plight, remaining inactive even when opportunities to change their circumstances arose – a condition which he called ‘learned helplessness’. What he also found was that whilst some acquired this condition, others seemed to be more resistant. When he looked for distinctions between the two groups, he discovered that they had different ways of explaining the source of stress; those that were more resistant tended to see the stressor as confined and temporary.

The findings were consistent with assumptions underlying the emerging field of cognitive behavioural therapy, and Seligman hypothesised that if he could train people to develop a more optimistic ‘explanatory style’ using ideas from CBT then he could teach them to be more resilient to stress. His ideas gained support and helped establish a new field of research known as ‘positive psychology’, which argued that wellbeing is a legitimate focus for researchers and policymakers. This ‘wellbeing movement’ now spans psychology, economics, and politics, led by organisations such as Action for Happiness and the New Economics Foundation.

Governments and businesses have picked up on the science and are transforming it into policy and interventions. Wellbeing programs have been introduced in certain schools – Wellington College, for instance, holds wellbeing classes for its students, and school PSHE programs are teaching emotional skills. But despite graduate employers criticising a lack of soft skills, wellbeing programs have not (as Anthony Seldon of Wellington College notes) been rolled out for students in higher education.

Given that educational institutions are supposed to be at the cutting edge of science, it’s surprising that most seem to be so far behind the curve, with some members of academia (such as this Vice Chancellor) apparently not believing that learning has much to do with psychology at all.

Counselling services have increasingly taken it upon themselves to offer group sessions on topics such as mindfulness and stress management, but these are limited to the narrow financial and political confines of ‘student support’. Research links a perceived sense of control with job searching strategies , motivation at work , and entrepreneurial potential . As employability and enterprise agendas continue to grow, it’s time that applied psychology was recognised as being crucial not just to student support but to student development.

So how we do this? For starters, universities can work to strengthen ties between support services and careers centres, bringing together mutually-compatible expertise; careers centres can look to offer students psychological training, and the growing number of university programs encouraging extra-curricular personal development can promote and accredit initiatives that help build resilience. The evidence base is out there; let’s apply it.

I’m not suggesting that a focus on applied psychology is a substitute for social action; it won’t solve the issues of inflated tuition fees and struggling jobs markets. But if psychology can help young people to gain an advantage over the problems they are facing then it might be enough to give them a bit more hope for the future. And if we act now, just maybe when we look back in ten or twenty years the young people of today will be known not as a ‘lost’ generation but as a resilient one.

Lucas, R.E., Clark, A.E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2004). Unemployment alters the set point for life satisfaction. Psychol Sci. 15(1), 8-13.
Baum, A., Fleming, R., Reddy, D.M. (1986). Unemployment stress: loss of control, reactance and learned helplessness. Soc Sci Med. 22 (5), 509-16.
Benassi, V.A., Sweeney, P.D., Dufour, C.L. (1988). Is there a relation between locus of control orientation and depression? Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 97(3), 357-367.
Ng T.W.H., Sorensen K.L., Eby, L.T. (2006) Locus of control at work: a meta-analysis. Journal of Organisational Behaviour. 27(8) 1057- 1087.
Spector, P.E., Cooper, C.L., Sanchez ,J.L., O’Driscoll, M., & Sparks, K. (2002). Locus of Control and Wellbeing at Work: How Generalizable Are Western Findings? The Academy of Management Journal 45(2), 453-466.
Buchanan, G.M., & Seligman, M.E.P. (1995) Explanatory style. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Caliendo, M., Cobb-Clark, D. and Uhlendorff, A. (2009) Locus of Control and Job Search Strategies. IZA Discussion Paper 4750, Bonn. Available at: http://ftp.iza.org/dp4750.pdf
Puthanpurayil R S. Personality traits and locus of control as predictors of work motivation. (2008) Available at: http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/handle/10539/4751
Kaufmann, P.J., Welsh, D.H.B., & Bushmarin, N. (1995). Locus of control and entrepreneurship in the Russian Republic. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 20(1), 43-56.

Referring Back To CR166 (And A Note For Journalists)

Blind Men And The Elephant
During the past few months, there have been articles about the mental health of students in the Guardian (here, here, here, here, and here), the Independent (here and here), Times Higher Education (here, here, and here), and now the BBC (here). It’s great to see the issue being covered, even if it’s because of tragic statistics and stories.

If there’s one issue with the coverage it’s that it tends to focus a lot on problems and not much on solutions. It’s important that those covering the subject don’t ignore the work that’s already been done to provide us with answers.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report doesn’t have all the answers. It doesn’t even have all the questions. (It makes it clear that more research and data is needed – some of which has since become available thanks to the work of organisations such as NUS and the Equality Challenge Unit). But the report does give us a few clear guidelines and recommendations that can be acted on immediately. More than that, it’s the most comprehensive report on student mental health we have, with input from organisations across the higher education and mental health sectors. It gets us on the same page. We should all be referring to it.

When I get phone calls from journalists looking to cover student mental health, it’s usually immediately apparent that they are full of compassion and sensitivity for the subject. I enjoy talking with them. But I don’t think I’ve had a single journalist start by asking me what needs to be done. The focus has always been on what’s wrong, and why. I suppose that’s the nature of journalism, but hopefully it can begin to shift a little.

I wrote a review of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report after it’s publication, summarising key points and adding a few things that were omitted. I’ve now updated this paper, adding data and developments from the past 18 months. If you’re a journalist or policymaker looking to do something around the mental health of students, take a look.

University Mental Health Policies: Better Communication = Better Mental Health

In March I was part of an online discussion about the role of mental health policies in promoting students’ mental health – a subject brought to prominence by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The starting point for the discussion was simple: should all universities have a mental health policy?

At first there seemed to be unanimous agreement from panelists: yes, all universities should have a mental health policy. Since all of the panelists were (to some degree) involved in supporting students’ mental health, this probably wasn’t surprising. Why would anyone not want to make it easier for students to access support, right? But the discussion grew more complex, and an opposing point was raised that I hadn’t anticipated. After reflection it became clear though that the disagreement was not based on a difference of views, but on an ambiguity found in the RPsych’s recommendations – one that I hope to clear up here.

The argument put forward by one of the panellists was that, whilst all universities should have mental health policy, it should not necessarily be based in a single ‘mental health policy’ document. The wider point that they alluded to was that, since the mental health of students is interrelated with other subject areas (such as disability issues and student services), it cannot be looked at in isolation; to expect universities to be able to extricate mental health policy from related policy areas and present it in a single uniform document risks oversimplifying the issues.

In some ways, this view aligns with the principles of the Healthy Universities project (based on the World Health Organisation’s settings-based approach), which recognizes that health and wellbeing is not a standalone issue but one that necessarily involves wider environmental factors. We know that social factors have a profound influence on mental health, therefore for universities to modernize and adopt settings-based approaches they need to recognize the links between mental health and wider campus issues – even those issues traditionally considered to be academic (as alien as this idea may be to certain VCs). The panellist was surely right, then: mental health policy must be embedded into wider institutional policy. And yet, the content of policy and the presentation of policy are not necessarily the same thing.

What the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report fails to do is recognise the dual roles of a mental health policy. If we explore the definition of ‘policy’, we’re confronted by two interpretations. Whilst on the one hand policy exists to provide standards and guidelines for policy-makers and those policing policy, on the other hand, it exists as a public statement of intent – a contract between those with the power to implement policy, and those whom the policy affects. The former, we can think of as ‘policy‘ (or a number of related policies), the latter as ‘a policy‘ – which is about communicating ‘policy’ to stakeholders through a single document.

The reason I first got involved in mental health campaigning was not to address gaps in support, but gaps in communication. The Mind Matters Society was launched to ‘bring mental health out of the shadows on campus’ – by challenging stigma around mental health issues, but also by making information about mental health more available to students so that they could make their own choices. The latter of these goals (although not as topical as the former) is just as crucial. The sharing of good information necessarily reduces discrimination, but a reduction in discrimination does not necessarily lead to useful information being shared. As long as information about a university’s mental health and support provision remains impenetrable to students, mental health will be a subject difficult to grapple with. It’s for this reason that a formal statement outlining the university’s commitment to student mental health is so important.

The task for universities,therefore, is to provide a policy document on the subject of mental health that is accessible to those it affects, whilst also ensuring that policy on mental health remains embedded within its wider system. The dozens of university mental health policies already in place suggest that this is achievable.

If universities need to provide multiple policy documents then so be it, as long as there’s one starting document that sets out the university’s commitment to the mental health of students. As Chris Brill, the ECU’s policy advisor suggested during the discussion, irrespective of the complexity of policy, universities can offer a reference document that outlines the university’s position on mental health. It’s this that I believe the RPsych’s report is referring to it when it speaks of a ‘mental health policy’, and it’s this that I am campaigning around. Whether the title of this policy document contains the term ‘mental health’ is up to them, but  when ‘mental health’ is the universally used term to capture psychological issues and treatments, why complicate matters further by calling it anything else?

How We Can All Make A Difference on University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day

Note: This article was originally published on www.huffingtonpost.co.uk, here.

It seems like almost every day is an awareness day for something or other. There are a handful of awareness days, weeks, and months that get global attention and raise funds for vital causes. But then there are more obscure awareness days, not necessarily any less vital, perhaps, yet not quite managing to gain the same attention. There is, apparently, a National Pig Day, a Potato Awareness Week, and even a National Toilet Tank Repair Month – which, coincidentally, falls in the same month as National Pickled Peppers Month.

So it was with some trepidation that the idea of a University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day was put to me. Would it get lost in a sea of awareness days? Would the creation of yet another awareness day cause eyes to roll? I was unsure. But after thinking about it, I realised that an awareness day isn’t just about trying to squeeze a date into the diaries of those who would otherwise be uninterested. It’s also about aggregating the resources of those who are already involved with a cause – to get stuff done.

There are many people with an interest in university mental health; including university support staff, student unions, charities, and a growing number of student campaigners. But it’s hard to unite everyone. The issues are complex, and we have our own narrow remits and institutional issues to deal with. This is where University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day comes in. For one day of the year we can try and take a step back from the individual problems we’re working on, focus our resources on addressing the issues that exist across institutions, and know that there are others, all around the UK, who will be doing exactly the same.

Tomorrow is the second annual University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day, led by the University Mental Health Advisors Network (UMHAN). Amidst the campus events and activities aiming to raise awareness of mental health, there will be an opportunity to work towards accomplishing specific, shared goals. Goals that are unambiguous and worthy of broad support.

The most comprehensive guidance paper for university mental health is the Royal College of Psychiatrists’2011 report, which outlines a series of recommendations for how universities can improve the mental health of their members. In its recommendations, there is one that stands out for being relatively straightforward and achievable, and it’s this in particular that, in 2013, campaigners have an opportunity to push for. The recommendation reads as follows:

It is recommended that all higher education institutions have a formal mental health policy. This should ensure that they meet statutory obligations under disability legislation. It should also cover areas such as health promotion, the provision of advice and counselling services, student support and mentoring, and special arrangements for examinations (Universities UK/GuildHE Working Group for the Promotion of Mental Well-Being in Higher Education, 2006).”

It’s a precise recommendation, and when combined with guidelines on developing a mental health policy, available for download from the website for the Working Group for Promotion of Mental Well-being in Higher Education, there seems little room for ambiguity.

At its most basic, a mental health policy represents an institution’s commitment to supporting the mental health of its members. With it, staff and students can be familiar with the rights and opportunities offered to them, they can hold the institution accountable to its policy, and they can seek improvements to it when they deem it necessary. But it’s more than this. It provides a shared starting point from which the institution and its members can collectively identify and explore broader issues that go beyond the scope of the institution, such as cultural and political factors affecting the Higher Education sector at large.

For the policy to be meaningful it needs to be actively monitored, and reviewed and updated to reflect the needs of students and staff, as well as ongoing changes that affect universities. This is why each university should be encouraged to make their mental health policy publicly available through their website.

In December I wrote an article asking, ‘whose responsibility is student mental health?’ There was no easy answer to it. But on University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day, there is something we can all do. We can give our support to the range of activities taking place. We can champion great work by students, staff, and institutions. And we can push for each institution to have in place a formal, up to date, and publicly available mental health policy. It might not fix everything, but it’s a start.

Visit here to sign a petition urging the CEO of Universities UK – the representative body for 134 institutions – to encourage and support all of its member institutions in developing a mental health policy.

Student suicide data, and what needs to be done

(Note: The issues discussed in this article may be distressing for those affected by suicide. You can find out more information about suicide at the Mental Health Foundation’s website, here. If anyone has been affected by the issues discussed in this post and needs to talk to someone immediately, you can call the Samaritans helpline and speak to someone confidentially, 24 hours a day, on this number: 08457 90 90 90.)

A report published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists last year warned that there was a “pressing need” to do more around student mental health. New figures released last week show what’s at stake. In 2011, 112 students in England and Wales took their own lives. Every suicide is tragic. But what makes this figure particularly concerning is that it is almost a 50% increase on 2007.

I was sent the data on Wednesday by the Office of National Statistics whilst researching for an article to mark the one year anniversary of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report (which I reviewed here). Having failed to find any up to date statistics, I contacted the ONS with a freedom of information request on Monday. The figures have been published to the ONS website here*, and are discussed in a Guardian article here.

Although the ONS officer I worked with urged caution about drawing conclusions due to the numbers involved, the increase corresponds with a BMJ study of the wider population that suggests the financial crisis may have caused a significant rise in suicides. It also corresponds with concerns raised in the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report about the current pressures facing students: “Social changes such as the withdrawal of financial support, higher rates of family breakdown and, more recently, economic recession are all having an impact on the well-being of students and other young people.”

When I received the figures, I was writing an article about the lack of urgency around student mental health. These figures raise further questions about the higher education sector and about what institutions are doing to ensure their students have adequate support. It’s time for the sector to respond.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report provides clear recommendations for institutions and policy-makers. Currently, it is difficult to know which institutions, if any, are making serious efforts to meet these recommendations. This needs to change;

  1. Institutions should guarantee a certain level of support for their students.
  2. Institutions should put in place an institution-wide mental health policy and make it publicly available through their website; the policy should be reviewed and updated regularly by an institution-wide mental health & wellbeing committee that meets several times a year.
  3. The sector should fund a national committee to recognise and promote good practice in student mental health.

It’s up to students, staff, parents, and all those with an interest in the welfare of young people, to demand that institutions and policy-makers prioritise student support.

*The figures are for students aged 18+. ONS data was only available for England and Wales. The number of students in full-time education has increased by 15% during the same period.
Resources:  Universities UK produced a guidance paper on Reducing the Risk of Student Suicide in 2002, available here.

The cause of low mental health disclosure rates: “Fear of appearing weak” or poor publicity?

Yesterday, The Times Higher Education (THE) published an article suggesting that the low number of students and staff disclosing mental health problems could be explained by “a fear of appearing weak”. I’m not sure that’s a good explanation.

Firstly, the context — The article refers to a report from the Equality Challenge Unit (a charity that, according to its website, “works to further and support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education”) highlighting that just 0.7% of students and 0.2% of staff are reporting a mental health problem. Even using conservative estimates about the prevalence of mental health problems, there is clearly a very significant number of students and staff that are not disclosing their condition.

The consensus is that stigma prevents disclosure, and that if people feel less stigmatised then the number reporting their conditions will grow. That may be true. But there’s a question in this discussion that needs more attention: Why should they disclose?

If the sector believes that students and staff will benefit from disclosing a mental health problem to their institution then they need to explain how. And it would follow that if the numbers still aren’t increasing then it’s because students and staff don’t think the advantages are significant enough. Or they still know nothing about them.

The ECU’s report states that students with a disability who access Disability Support Allowance don’t only benefit financially, but are also more likely to receive a first class or upper-second class degree. If institutions want more DSA uptake then they need to publicise this, and use it as a way of communicating the benefits of disclosure. They can start by addressing the issue of most students and staff not knowing that they would be entitled to DSA due to confusion around the use of the word ‘disability’. Or by developing, and making available to all staff and students, a university-wide mental health policy – as recommended in the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report into student mental health.

Stigma is a part of this. But stigma should not be used by policy-makers as a way of shifting responsibility away from their role. If institutions want more of their members to disclose a mental health problem then it’s up to them to give good reasons for doing so. Gary Loke doesn’t seem to understand this:

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.”

You may mean well, Gary, but the bigger question to answer is this: how will universities help those that talk about their mental health problems? And what exactly do you mean when you say that institutions are “generally” very supportive? The burden of responsibility for low disclosure rates does not end with those that are not disclosing;  institutions must work on creating settings in which people feel inclined to disclose.