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Applying to uni - should I tell UCAS about my mental health?

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

As well as my day job at MoodLifter I am also a volunteer on the committee for the University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN) You may not have heard of this charity but it is a charity that represents it's members who work in universities supporting students with mental health disabilities. In July 2019 I was asked to represent UMHAN at a roundtable discussion at UCAS (For those of you that know me, in the below photo yes I have changed my hair colour to blue and yes by the time you read this it has probably changed again)

I have blogged about the details of the meeting for UMHAN's blog (It will be posted up in the next few days). In my personal blog I wanted to take this as an opportunity to share some of my views and advice that the information at the meeting has informed. Firstly, I will give my advice to students. Then below this there is information for parents, careers, health professionals, careers advisers and teachers.

I am a student applying for university

When you complete the form it asks you "do you have a disability" If you answer "yes" you then have to select from a drop down list.

In my time working in student support we had a very low number of students disclose a mental health disability and yet we were always a busy service. There are many reasons people don't disclose let me debunk some of these myths and reasons.

1) I don't perceive myself as having a disability

I think one of the biggest challenges of the Equality Act is that in order to have adjustments and support to put you on an equal playing field you need to define yourself as having a disability and for it to meet the Equality Act 2010's definition that it significantly impacts on function and it has lasted or is likely to last 12 months. Now to have a labelled diagnosis it is a medical modelled viewpoint. A social model of disability feels that it is the environment that disables and that with the right adaptations to the environment a person will be able to do what they value.

If you answer yes to any of the following questions I would suggest that you would potentially meet the criteria so it is worth ticking that box

  • I have had treatment for a mental health condition for the last year

  • I have had adjustments in school such as access to a quiet space or extra time in exams

  • Because of my mental health I have needed regular additional guidance and support

  • My mental health has stopped me from attending school and doing the things I like doing

  • My performance and grades are significantly impacted due to my mental health

2) I believe disclosing a mental health condition will put me at risk of not getting a place on my course

Because of the Equality Act 2010 universities are not allowed to discriminate as a disability is a protected characteristic. It would be illegal for you to not be offered a place if you have demonstrated that you have the same qualities as a student without a diagnosis.

UCAS have some interesting stats on 18 year old students:

Those who do disclose a mental health disability have a 79% chance of being given an offer compared to 75% of the 18 year olds with no mental health disability.

30% who disclose received a unconditional offer compared to 23% of the none disclosed group.

More analysis of these stats are needed but this could indicate that universities are aware of the challenges (Students with mental health conditions who have been estimated A* are far more likely to not do as well in their results despite being as academically capable as their peers)

For some professions such as medics and therapists there are fitness to practice procedures. It is far safer to have a person with insight into their mental health who is open and honest with their degree course than to have someone who is not aware that their health may be impacting on function. There sadly are times when someone may not be fit to practice, this is to put the safety of the patient first. Usually the first stage of a fitness to practice is identifying support measure and reasonable adjustments. If you can perform with the appropriate measures in place the university has a duty to provide this.

3) It will go on my record

When you disclose to UCAS or your university it places a one letter code on a system. Only those that need to know have access to see if that letter is there. It does not get passed on to future employees. The purpose of that letter is to ensure you are offered the right support. It also provides anonymous stats on a wider level about the success of students with difficulties and helps universities plan how it can meet needs. Disability is not a permanent state. You can have this information changed.

4) I don't know what the benefits of disclosing are

When you disclose it means that the university that you apply to can be proactive in contacting you to discuss your support. It means that they will discuss how your condition impacts on you and what reasonable adjustments they can put in place to give you the fairest chance of success in your degree. Adjustments vary depending on the disability's impact but it may include ensuring your accommodation is a healthy environment for you, looking at how your timetable is balanced, exam arrangements.

You may also be entitled to disabled student allowance. Many students with mental health conditions are not aware of the support this can provide. It can offer mental health mentoring to ensure that you have regular contact with a professional who can support you in planning the week ahead and practice strategies for maintaining or improving your mental health. You may be entitled to software to help you get organised for when you are feeling overwhelmed.

5) I will be better once I am at university

We like to think that by moving the fresh start will help, and sometimes it does. But our head is attached to our body and when we move it comes with us. There is no such thing as a "normal" university experience but we all go with expectations. University is challenging as we have to be independent, manage our time, domestic tasks, study, money and work. We are possibly going to a place where we don't know anyone and will have to live and study with new people, we may still have responsibilities such as caring at home. Or we may be studying in our home town when everyone else on the course is new to the place.

People that say uni is the best time of your life are often looking at it with selected rose tinted glasses. Explore how independent you have been, are you able to know when to start and stop work, are you able to regulate your mental health and seek support when needed?

5) I have left it too late to disclose

Even once the form has gone in it is not too late. (although there will be certain deadlines for achieving certain adjustments). Universities often have mitigating circumstances forms so you can inform them of things they may wish to take into account such as mental health impacting on your overall grade and performance. At any point you can contact your university and disclose. Each university will have a different terminology. Look up "student support" or "student wellbeing". Often a disability department will be the first point of contact but some universities will have an online registration form or a mental health and counselling hub.

Contact your chosen university to chat about how your needs can be met at any point. Don't feel that you need to wait for them although expect with some universities that they may have specific times when they respond or meet with enquiring students.

If you would be interested in future workshops to support students in thinking about how to plan for university then contact me.

I am a parent

Read and understand the above benefits of disclosure. Listen to your child and respect their views but calmly explain any differences in opinion and your thought process behind it.

Give your child the opportunity to practice independence and teach them skills for activities of daily living. If your child does not want to listen explain why you are wanting to show them. Understand that there is no such thing as error-less learning, allow your child to safely learn from trying things out their own way (even if you think it won't work).

Try your best not to put too much pressure on the degree choice and that this must happen this year. If your child is not ready they will be able to ask the university to delay a year. Within my work in student support, students have had the most difficulty when they have chosen a degree just to please their parents and they have gone to university before they felt ready to do so.

Encourage your child to think about what sort of environment they flourish in. Will they do better in a city in which there is lots going on and they can easily be distracted from the stresses of university life or will they be better in a campus with structure. Will they do better in a small university or do they need the variety and culture that a larger institution brings? Will an academically challenging environment be stimulating or too stressful? Would they choose a course that has more taught hours or self directed learning? Ask questions about the number of people sharing a kitchen in halls, the average lecture class size.

I am a health professional who has patients that are going to university

So many times I have experienced student who have been getting intensive CAMHS support, even in patient for them to be discharged from service straight to university.

Universities do not provide statutory care. There can often be waiting lists of 12-18 months for adult community mental health services. IAPT CBT services have shorter waiting lists but if you have been seeing a patient weekly will an online CBT course meet the need? Be realistic with your patient about the level of therapeutic input that you feel they will need. Make sure that you make any referrals as soon as the patient has confirmed they will be moving out of area.

Do not assume that a change of environment and a meaningful role of being a student will be a protective factor, there are so many transitions that a person experiences at this age. This may be the first time your patient will have to self regulate without support from people that have known them a long time. If your patient is leaving an unhealthy environment to go to university talk about the expectations they have of what this means. Work with your patient to identify what skills and protective factors they need to make this transition work for them. If you have capacity create a safety plan. Explore how the patients experience of asking for help and times that they have been boundaried and said no.

Encourage your patient to think about the environment that is most likely to help them thrive. (See the above advice for parents)

I am a teacher or I am a careers adviser

Don't discourage your student from disclosing. In fact, beyond the disability tick box it can sometimes be empowering for student to discuss it within their personal statement. They can think about how they have managed their mental health and use it to demonstrate reflection and emotional intelligence. This is a personal choice for the student but by being matter of fact and supportive it will enable the student to do what feels right for them.

Encourage the student to identify what learning environment suits them and how this can translate to university, if the student has support in school ensure the student has insight into the level of support provided and explore with them what will they need to find out about university support to ensure that it works.

If you are unsure of timescales or have questions contact UCAS.

Read more blogs by Sarah here.

Sarah is an Occupational Therapist and personal trainer who is passionate about helping people flourish @MoodLifterPT She is always happy to be contacted if you want to find out more.

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