New data from Ucas shows that student mental health declarations have rocketed over last decade, but many still fear asking for support will jeopardise their applications.
Today’s report, ‘Starting the Conversation: Ucas report on student mental health’, shows a 450% increase in students declaring a mental health condition in their Ucas application – in 2020, 3.7% of all UK applicants did so.
However, 49% of respondents to a Ucas survey of first year students said that they had chosen not to share such information with higher education (HE) providers. As a result, Ucas estimates that over 70,000 students may enter HE every year with a mental health condition.
Students are not obliged to declare mental health conditions in their application. The Ucas report suggests the most common reason for not doing so is a lack of understanding about what the data will be used for, and concerns it will impact on their chances of receiving an offer.
One student told the survey: “I didn’t want them to discriminate against me. I have depression and anxiety so I wouldn’t want that to jeopardise my application for paramedic science”.
Another said: “I was afraid that I would be rejected. I know they say they can’t reject you, but I was applying to a very competitive course”.
Others referred to the stigma of mental health problems – “I felt that it was personal to me and didn’t want to be stigmatised. I didn’t want to be treated differently for it and wasn’t sure why this was relevant” – or said they believed they needed to show an official diagnosis.
Ucas is about providing access to education for all. No student should be, or fear being, negatively impacted by disclosing a mental health condition – Clare Marchant, Ucas
Key findings from the Ucas report include:
- 49% of first year students said that they had not shared information about a mental health condition in their applications
- One in five students research support specifically for an existing mental health condition before they apply, and more than one in four look at the provision of general mental health and wellbeing service.
- 3.7% of all UK applicants declared a mental health condition in their application to study in 2020 – up from 0.7% in 2011.
- Women are 2.2 times more likely to declare a mental health condition than men.
- The courses with the the lowest declaration rates are engineering, medicine and dentistry courses, where only 1.4% of accepted applicants disclose an existing mental health condition.
- Some LGBT+ students are around six times more likely to share a mental health condition, and care-experienced students are almost three times as likely – underlining the value of recognising how mental health intersects with other characteristics and support needs.
“Despite the significant growth in mental health declarations, there remains an equally significant number of students who choose not to declare it as part of their Ucas application,” said Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant. “Creating a culture of positive disclosure is fundamental to delivering our charitable objectives. Ucas is about providing access to education for all. No student should be, or fear being, negatively impacted by disclosing a mental health condition.
“Universities and colleges want students to succeed in their studies and have an array of support services available to ensure this. Whilst there are a number of opportunities for students to disclose any mental health concerns with their chosen university throughout the application and enrolment process, it is clear that the earlier that important conversation starts, the better informed the student will be about this support.
“At Ucas we are continuously reviewing how we collect information about students, not only about their mental and/or physical health conditions but other support needs – recognising that connecting students to the right support will, in turn, support their mental health and wellbeing more broadly, giving them the best chance of success.
“As a sector we know how important it is to eradicate outdated stigmas and meet the needs of all students. We recognise that, collectively, more needs to be done to ensure there is an awareness of the provision of services available and to remove any perception that opportunities could be restricted if an existing condition is disclosed.”
Once you’re at university or college, asking for help with your mental health needs to feel as simple as saying you’re trying to find the right book in the library – Rosie Tressler, Student Minds
“We are pleased that UCAS is listening to and sharing the voices of students, as well as exploring how it can adapt the application system to better support disclosure,” said Rosie Tressler OBE, CEO of Student Minds.
“Once you’re at university or college, asking for help with your mental health needs to feel as simple as saying you’re trying to find the right book in the library. We know that universities and colleges are working towards comprehensive whole-institution approaches to mental health, which will support and enable disclosure of health conditions at any and every stage of the student journey.
“The more our future students see how ingrained a mental health and wellbeing strategy is within and across an institution, the more confident they will feel that they are entering an inclusive environment that celebrates difference as a strength.
“I’m encouraged that our sector is heading in the direction in which this is the reality for all. This long-term investment is crucial especially as we know that many challenges will have been exacerbated by and will outlast the pandemic. For any student that is looking for support through this difficult period, we encourage you to visit our Student Space, where you can find out about the services at your institution, access guidance and a range of services.”
Student mental health: next steps
Within the report, Ucas lays out steps the sector could take to encourage students to share information about their mental health and access the support the support they need. It recommends:
- A joined-up, cross-sector communications campaign to unify messaging and “create a culture of positive disclosure”.
- Targeted action in subject areas with low declaration rates – particularly medicine and dentistry courses – to reassure students that sharing a mental health condition will not have implications for their application.
- Continued implementation of Universities UK’s Stepchange framework and the University Mental Health Charter from Student Minds.
- Putting student mental health at the heart of discussions around admissions reform – including Ucas’s proposed variation of the post-qualification offer model, which it says would give students time to develop “a trusting relationship” with providers, and start the conversation about mental health support ahead of transition.
Ucas said it would, in turn, work on enhancing the student experience by:
- Reviewing how it collects information about a student’s mental and/or physical health conditions and other support needs, including ongoing collaboration with sector bodies and expert organisations.
- Implementing additional fields in the applications (eg caring responsibilities, estrangement) to facilitate a greater understanding of students’ support needs, and how these may intersect with mental health.
- Improving fluidity in the Ucas application to allow students to share information at any point during their application journey.
- Enabling students to select multiple impairments and conditions so they can provide universities and colleges with more accurate and meaningful information about their support needs.
- Undertaking further research in 2022 to understand the experiences of students who follow different routes for sharing information regarding their mental health.
The survey was completed by 21,000 accepted 2020 cycle applicants (in January 2021) and 257 school and college advisors (in March 2021).
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