Start to Success - a project to support student mental health and wellbeing during transition: A case study and reflections from Laura Kendall (FE Liaison and Transitions Officer)
Start to Success is a student mental health project supporting student transitions into, through, and out of university. I work collaboratively with Keele and Staffordshire Universities to develop a whole community approach to supporting student mental health and wellbeing – in partnership with the region’s colleges, local authorities, police and NHS providers, who come together with a common purpose, to remove barriers, improve support and services, and enable student success.
As part of my role, I have developed a toolkit to support successful transitions into higher education (HE), including mental health declarations on the UCAS application. Through delivering ‘Declare Your Mental Health’ sessions in three FE colleges in Stoke-on-Trent, I have become aware of how we can better develop students’ understanding around mental health disclosures - this is an overview of what I have learned and my recommendations for those supporting students by understanding the needs and nuances within this area.
Stepping back to September 2020 when we were all adjusting to our new reality of a pandemic-informed world and getting our FE students back in classrooms, I was working with partner colleges to ensure that students preparing to apply to HE had all the information they needed to make informed choices. During this work, it became clear to me – a former student (albeit a while ago) with a diagnosed mental health condition – that I did not disclose this on my own application, nor did I tell anyone when I arrived at university. Arguably, the conversation and ‘acceptance’ around mental health has shifted slightly since my time at university, however, it still begged the question: why did I not declare?
I wondered whether students continued to struggle with this decision. I came across UMHAN’s ‘I Chose to Disclose’ campaign and was inspired by the work taking place - it informed my work to develop initiatives to support this process. I arranged some focus groups to understand first-hand what the student experience was and how it could be improved, covering a range of issues and questions about mental health disclosure including whether they had any prior information about disclosing a mental health condition on their UCAS application, and whether they would have any concerns about doing so.
Students’ questions and concerns were mostly about who would see that information, whether their application would be judged on it, and if their parents would be told. For some, they wondered whether they should declare if they felt they were managing their mental health , or if they wanted a fresh start where they were not defined by their mental health.
There was also a commonality amongst students looking to study subjects such as nursing, midwifery, law, psychology and teaching: there was a concern that disclosing a mental health need may impact on the likelihood of acceptance onto their chosen course, and, due to the nature of these courses, they worried that it may not be deemed ‘appropriate’ for someone who struggles with mental health to work in these areas – they feared being judged on their capability to succeed on the course.
There was also a concern regarding fitness to practise - students were worried that a mental health declaration may affect them passing the assessment. In response, we explained that declaring a mental health condition at the earliest opportunity meant that, in fact, reasonable adjustments and other requirements could be taken into consideration, as well as putting you in the driving seat for how you wish to be supported for the duration of your course.
80% of these students stated they had had no information about declaring a mental health condition prior to this session and the remaining 20% only had ‘some information’. Every student said they found the session useful and their confidence had increased, with 65% saying they would be more likely to declare after this session.
To take forward these issues and ensure a smooth declaration pathway, I spoke to colleagues in HE to see if they felt there were gaps or had any recommendations. One issue raised was, in some institutions, the UCAS declaration is not always passed from admissions to student services, and the student falls through the gap if they don’t follow up – so it is imperative we make students aware of this. Another problem is that, for students who don't disclose via UCAS, there can be a delay in implementing support when they start university. However, if they have a letter from their school or college outlining any support or adjustments they have received, it can sometimes act as evidence for interim measures to be put in place while the student awaits a full assessment. Therefore, if colleges and sixth forms were aware of this, they could create this in advance.
We need to be mindful that students who may have struggled with their mental health might not meet DSA eligibility but still require support. More clarity is needed around what a student can expect from their university when they declare – it may be a good idea for them to contact their chosen university to discuss what is available and be made aware they are responsible for making this contact in the first instance.
There are many questions and considerations for those working with students and supporting their mental health: is stigma still an issue – and what can we do to reduce it? Do schools and colleges have all the information they need to tell students about DSA and declaration so they can make informed choices? There is no one-size-fits-all route to supporting mental health declarations, but I hope this offers whoever reads this some ideas to help students transitioning into HE.
I can’t help thinking that if, ten years ago, I had decided to tick that box on my own UCAS application how would that have impacted my student journey? I remember the fear I felt about having a mental health condition – but I could have received support for it. Students are empowered through options and information – and that is what declaring your mental health can do.