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Should universities contact parents / guardians when students face mental health challenges?

  • 13 June 2019

Today’s new Student Academic Experience Survey 2019 from HEPI and Advance HE includes a new question on disclosing mental health challenges to students’ parents and guardians.

Here is a summary of the issue.

  • What do your results show?

The HEPI / Advance HE 2019 Student Academic Survey Survey shows nearly all students think it is sometimes right for universities to contact parents or guardians about mental ill-health, especially in ‘extreme circumstances’. Only 18% reject the idea.

  • Why have you asked this question?

There are too many cases where parents of students who have taken their own lives say they wish they had known the problems their child was facing, as perhaps they could have helped. There are around 100 student suicides a year and every one is a tragedy.

  • How bad are the problems?

Students are less likely to take their own lives than young people outside higher education. But one lost life is one too many. Universities are keen to provide supportive communities and to learn from best practice and we hope our results help foster more discussion.

  • Are you surprised by the results?

Not really, as we are in constant contact with students and universities. But many people are likely to be because, in the past, students were less willing to admit to mental health challenges, families were less involved with universities and there were fewer first-in-family students. 

  • Why haven’t universities already changed their practices?

Some have (eg Bristol, Exeter). But universities, quite rightly, tend to want a strong evidence base before changing their practices in sensitive areas. It is also a difficult legal area (eg over data protection). Plus, universities are worried about getting it wrong and the risk of inadvertently making things worse rather than better.

  • How do you actually make the change?

Students have to enrol at the start of each academic year. Just as they are typically asked ‘do you want to be on the electoral roll?’, they can be asked to provide the contact details of someone in the event of serious mental ill-health.

  • Should it be compulsory?

No. Some students are estranged from their parents and most students are over 18, so therefore legally adults. This is not about compelling people to do things against their will; it is about trying to make sure people who need support do not fall through the cracks.

  • How many universities already do it?

It is not clear how many universities have adopted opt-in or opt-out regimes but some have and the practice seems to be spreading, probably quite fast. The University of Bristol has seen a 94% take-up rate for their opt-in scheme.

  • Should applicants declare mental health issues on UCAS forms?

This can help because it can allow universities to prepare for students with specific needs. However, some young people do not want to declare at that point or the onset of issues may occur later. So it is not enough to leave it to either the current or any UCAS process on its own.

  • Isn’t this just mollycoddling snowflakes?

No. The transition from school or college to higher education is big moment in people’s lives. Moreover, it is a good thing that society as a whole is more open about mental health challenges, which are faced by a large proportion of the population during their lives.

  • What should Government do?

The Government has already taken a lead on this issue. Last December, Damian Hinds urged universities to look again at their disclosure practices and, earlier this year, he confirmed the establishment of a student mental health taskforce.

  • Is the information new?

Yes. We asked the question to applicants, in a project with Unite Students, back in 2017 (see below). But students’ views are not identical –  eg students are more likely than younger applicants to say disclosure should happen ‘under extreme circumstances’ and less likely ‘under any circumstances’.

  • Are students’ mental health challenges worse now?

Young people face challenges today that young people in the past did not always face, and the transition to higher education is a particularly big change in people’s lives. Part of any rise in students declaring mental health challenges may be due to it becoming easier to discuss the issue and to seek support.

3 comments

  1. Alice Prochaska says:

    As former head of an Oxford college, I applaud this move to enable students to permit contact with their parents in extreme cases. It can be anguishing for the college/university authorities if they feel constrained by data protection and privacy laws from seeking the help they believe their student needs. There always will be individual cases, however, where a parent’s or guardian’s involvement will be positively damaging — in the case of estrangement, obviously– and only the student concerned will know about that. I personally would favour an opt-out system, properly explained and giving students the option to opt out at any time if circumstances change.

  2. Levi Pay says:

    I would love it if those colleagues drafting reports like this would sit in a student services team and make the decisions about when to notify a student’s family of that student’s mental health difficulties. They would soon see just how unreal a lot of this conversation is.

    It is one thing to talk about the proportion of students (or parents) who want to see parents being notified when a student has mental health difficulties. It is quite another to define when and how that process will work in practice.

    It would be helpful if organisations like HEPI and Advance HE would move away from the general point (“Parental notification good”) and towards helping universities manage this very complex and risky issue in the real world.

  3. Mark Byrne says:

    Ask the student’s who they would like contacted if the institution thinks there is an issue (evidenced through lack of attendance, other form of engagement, lecturer concern or other). The learner indicates who they would like contacted (NOT NECESSARILY PARENTS (not all learners have parents!!)). Learner can update contacts as often as they wish and hopefully the institution never needs to contact the third party but they now have an escalation route.
    If learner does not identify 3rd party then that is their right. Can’d be an opt-out under GDPR.
    Myself and a colleague presented this as an “Academic Living Will” (not a name we necessarily like) at a conference last year. Are institutions interested in forming a working group to see what this might look like in practice? Feel free to drop me an email. byrnemarkj@gmail.com

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