University Mental Health Day: Actions Speak Louder than Words

Today, Thursday 4th March 2021, is University Mental Health Day. Its aim is to highlight the importance of student mental health and promote positive change. Even before the pandemic, students had high rates of mental illness but this past year in particular has been challenging for students, with the stress of Covid and its far-reaching impact on loneliness and job prospects. In 2020, a study by the charity Mind showed that 73% of students believed their mental health worsened during lockdown.

Universities have student counsellors and mental health support for students. They have written commitments to the mental wellbeing of their students. Yet, as barristers who represent students seeking to overturn unfair university decisions, we regularly see universities adopt a dismissive attitude to students’ mental health problems.

In one case, a student suffering from depression performed poorly in a final examination. Shortly after, he consulted a clinical psychologist who made a formal diagnosis of severe depression. The psychologist explained that the depression is likely to have started 4 months previously and that, due to the severity of the symptoms, the student had been psychologically unable to share his problems with the university authorities. The university rejected the appeal, dismissing the psychologist’s evidence as retrospective. The university’s cold response to a young man in obvious mental anguish was heart-breaking for the student, his family and his legal team. So much for the uplifting ‘we care about your mental health’ sentiments plastered across the university website! The reality was quite different, and this was not an isolated case.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator, an independent body which reviews the decisions of universities, produced guidance last December on dealing with student requests for extenuating circumstances. The guidance stated ‘A student who is grappling with serious circumstances that are very likely to have had an impact on their performance should normally be given the benefit of the doubt’. That is not our experience. The starting position of many universities is “we don’t believe you”. This sceptical stance prevents unscrupulous students from taking advantage of the system but it will also penalise students with genuine mental health problems.

It is not enough for universities to make lofty promises in brochures, websites and conferences. It is not enough for them to point to an increased budget for student wellbeing services. They must act in a way that reflects their commitment to dealing compassionately with students who suffer from mental illness. They must appreciate that, dismissing or disbelieving students who say they were mentally unwell, can itself cause or worsen psychiatric harm. The appeals process to rectify a university’s unfair decision, which can last years and cost thousands of pounds in legal fees and lost opportunities, is itself emotionally and psychologically draining. We have many clients whose mental health has worsened as a result of their university’s refusal to believe them.

We call on universities to replace their rigid and often insensitive approach to students invoking mental illness as extenuating circumstances to one founded on compassion and common sense, giving students the benefit of the doubt in situations of uncertainty. Will some students take advantage of a lower evidential threshold of proof? Possibly, but such is the cost of treating students with legitimate mental illness in a fair and caring manner. Until we see actual change in the way universities treat these students, the feel-good words of university administrators about student wellbeing will sound hollow.

Daniel Sokol is a former university lecturer and barrister, and Bradley Talbot is a legal assistant for Alpha Academic Appeals.