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Students unwilling to disclose mental health conditions

Universities could do more to reassure students that information about mental health will remain confidential, new report says

Posted by Hannah Vickers | July 25, 2017 | Research

A new report commissioned by Unite Students and the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that around one in eight (13%) of university applicants have a mental health condition, but of those, only 37% have disclosed, or intend to disclose, their mental health condition to universities.

Most applicants (72%) would be willing for their university to contact a parent or guardian about their mental health, but this figure drops to 66% among those with an existing mental health condition. Privacy really matters.

Applicants may need more assurances in order to feel comfortable disclosing their condition - Reality Check report

Indeed, the report concludes that students fear such sensitive information may not stay private: “Applicants may need more assurances in order to feel comfortable disclosing their condition” says the report. “This may include information about how this disclosure will be used, including clarity around the university’s policies on confidentiality and data protection.”

Universities already have strict policies on confidentiality and data protection, but although this information is available on the institutions’ websites, it appears that more effort is required to raise awareness.

Andrew Cormack, chief regulatory adviser at the UK’s education technology solutions organisation, Jisc, thinks that new, stricter data protection rules coming into force next year may provide an opportunity for this. Next May, the UK will adopt the Europe-wide General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), that will give individuals’ the right to object to certain processing of data and have their personal data corrected and deleted, and its use restricted.

Under the GDPR, there are some additional details people must be told when their personal data is obtained. These include the legal basis for processing the data, how long it will be kept for and that the individual has the right to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) if they think there is an issue with the way their personal info is handled.

In addition, although there is no change to the current law’s requirement that health data can only be processed if the individual has positively agreed (so consent cannot be assumed from silence or inactivity), under the GDPR, separate consent must be obtained for different processing activities. Clarity over this could, for example, reassure students that mental health information they give to the university will only be used internally unless they give separate consent to sharing with parents, or other third parties. 

Universities should take heart from the fact that Jisc research shows students are willing to have their data collected if it benefits them. For example, 78% of HE students would be happy to have their learning data collected if it improved their grades. However, a lower proportion (60%) would be happy for tutors to collect their data if they were concerned about their welfare.

But while universities can quickly put in place measures to support and monitor those students who choose to disclose a mental condition, how do they recognise and help those who choose not to declare their mental troubles?

It is this section of the student population that is likely to be most socially isolated – disinclined to develop friendships, to frequent communal or social areas or to even to seek company in halls or shared houses. These students will be more at risk of dropping out and of developing a serious mental health problem.

Using learning analytics will allow universities to personalise interventions and uncover hidden patterns in their student data, reflect on how students are interacting, and make evidence-informed decisions about how best to support, or challenge, their students - Phil Richards, chief innovation officer at Jisc

Phil Richards, chief innovation officer at Jisc, explains: “Using learning analytics will allow universities to personalise interventions and uncover hidden patterns in their student data, reflect on how students are interacting, and make evidence-informed decisions about how best to support, or challenge, their students.

“Imagine a student has not accessed the virtual learning environment, been to the library or engaged in the college community for a number of weeks and has missed their last couple of deadlines. Data about all this is already being collected (although it’s often geared toward internal admin needs) and can be used to ring an alarm bell."

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