Discussing and Disclosing a Mental Health Condition
Is this relevant to me?
If you have a long term mental health condition, whether you have a medical diagnosis or not, you should think about whether you should inform your university (disclose). If your mental health, when at it's worst, can have an impact on your ability to study, then the University has a legal duty to support you and provide you with adjustments. This might include, for example, rest breaks in exams, or extensions to deadlines. You should also be able to get some support if your health effects you living and socialising independently, although this may come from outside of the University. Many Universities can help you with living arrangements, within their own accommodation, for example, if you need an ensuite bathroom.
Language used in a University setting may be different to what you are used to - at school the terminology is often "Special Needs" or "Learning Support" - but you may find that the word "disability" is used more frequently in Higher Education. This is because of the legislation which protects people with long term health conditions (Equality Act 2010). Even if you do not think of yourself as "disabled" you may well meet the criteria necessary to receive crucial support.
If you had exam adjustments or other support at school they will not automatically be replicated even if you have an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP). So it is important to make sure that you speak to the University support service as early as possible to ensure that any adjustments can be put in place.
Disclosing a mental health condition to the University can occur at any stage - before or after enrolment on a course. However, you are encouraged to do so at the earliest opportunity. For some more information about the services which may be available at your university, have a look at the UMHAN blog or contact the Mental Health Adviser at your institution.
Universities would prefer to work with you on preventing things being a problem or getting worse for you, and to anticipate difficulties you may encounter, rather than just reacting when things have gone wrong.
Universities have a duty to proactively anticipate the needs of students with any long term health condition (disability) and so you may find that you can access some of the things you need without providing the University with your personal information. However, this is likely to be limited, especially in terms of assessment and exams.
Many Support Services now operate a triaging system to make sure that you receive the support that is best for you. However, general wellbeing and counselling provision can be separate from teaching and learning adjustments, and so it is important not to assume that if you register with one service you will automatically be registered for all. Please ask Support Staff at the University for more information. It is likely that you will be asked to provide some form of medical evidence to register for exam and other reasonable adjustments.
It's good to think also about what support networks you currently have - your parents, family or friends - and how you might cope without these. The University you are applying to (or are already studying at) may have peer support schemes, and/or contact with local services and support groups.
It's really important to think about your existing support from professionals such as CAMHS or a therapist. You should ask them about how to transfer your care if you are moving to a new area. This can take a long time, so it's worth having these conversations early on. If you have input from Social Services they will also need to do a new assessment.
Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs) may also be an option - you do not pay this money back, but it is there to provide support as and when you need it. Many students with long term mental health conditions apply for this, because it means they can then access 1:1 support from a Specialist Mental Health Mentor. Even if you are not sure if you will need this support, it is worth applying so that it's then just in case you need it (and also because it is quite a long process). For more information about DSAs please take a look at the Disability Rights UK website.
Data Protection and the Equality Act
A mental health disclosure is deemed to be sensitive personal information under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR 2018) and must be treated accordingly. Generally speaking, the information you provide will only be shared with people who need to know, at the time you are disclosing.
The number of students who declare a mental health condition is steadily rising year on year (see for example the Higher Education Statistics Agency, under "Disability"). However some choose not to disclose, as they may have recovered, may feel their difficulties aren't "that bad", they may not identify with the "disability" label, they may be concerned about stigma or being treated unfavourably, or may not be aware of the support available so see little benefit. It is hoped that some of the information on this website will inform your decision about disclosing.
If you do disclose a mental health condition, the Equality Act (incorporating the Disability Discrimination Act) means that it would in fact be unlawful for anyone employed by the University to discriminate against you, and University staff will follow the General Data Protection Regulation to ensure the information you provide is processed appropriately and sensitively.
In practice, for example, this means that a mental health disclosure does not have any bearing on whether an applicant is offered a place; this decision must be made purely on the grounds of academic suitability and any mental health‐related support requirements considered separately.
Who To Talk To
All Universities are at different stages of developing mental health support, so there may be a range of people who you can talk to directly, or whom you may be put in contact with, dependent on your University. This includes the disability office, counsellors, welfare staff, etc.
Increasingly, however, this will be a specialist member of staff with a remit to support students experiencing mental health difficulties - a Mental Health Adviser (although their job titles and the specific remit of their roles may vary from one University to another). In general, they are there to co-ordinate support for students with mental health conditions and to act as a point of contact throughout the duration of their studies. They will be used to talking to and supporting students with a wide range of experiences, including those who have been sectioned, members of the LGBTQ+ community and those who are estranged from their parents.
Prospective students are encouraged to make a formal disclosure under the ‘disability declaration’ section on their UCAS or post-graduate application form, as it will normally be possible to be in contact with the mental health support staff at their institution in advance of the start of their course.
This provides an opportunity to discuss any issues, concerns, anticipated course and/or support requirements in more detail. They will also be able to provide details of other support resources available within the university and the local area: for example, how to register with a GP, referrals to community mental health teams and voluntary sector services, peer support, availability of other specialist support workers and any funding for this support.