Learning support agreements
The disability office will usually have been in touch with the student before they start their course and will have agreed with them an individual learning support agreement (LSA). The LSA describes any adjustments that need to be made or support the student will need to access the course. These might include preferred method of accessing written information, exam arrangements and library support. The student will give you a copy of this LSA themselves. The faculty office will also have a copy of the LSA. Whether or not the student has an LSA please feel free to liaise with the disability advisors throughout the course regarding any questions or concerns you may have.
What are mental health difficulties
‘Mental health’ covers a very wide spectrum, ranging from a sense of emotional wellbeing and resilience on the one hand to an experience of debilitating and persistent symptoms on the other. Mental health difficulties are usually temporary or episodic and vary greatly between people and at different times.
Most symptoms tend to be either:
- exaggerated or extreme forms of our usual emotions e.g. exaggerated feelings of fear or worry leading to anxiety-related symptoms and/or exaggerated feelings of sadness or low mood leading to depression-related symptoms.
- symptoms relating to a shifting experience of reality when one can see / hear / smell / feel things that aren’t ‘real’ or that nobody else experiences.
Approximately 1 in 4 adults in the UK experience a diagnosable mental problem (reference: Mental Health Foundation etc) in any one year. Serious cases are experienced by a very small proportion of people. Amongst university students, symptoms of depression, anxiety and eating disorders tend to be the most common. To avoid labelling, it is a useful rule of thumb to focus on the symptoms the person is experiencing rather than the clinical diagnosis.
Students with Mental Health Difficulties might be dealing with:
- Symptoms of a particular episode e.g. feeling very anxious and having difficulty concentrating in class.
- The effects of medication e.g. tiredness.
- Stigmatisation of mental health difficulties and the resultant attitudes of some staff and fellow students. This can be stressful and alienating. Stigmatisation is usually based on lack of knowledge and is fuelled by media representations, the vast majority of which focus on violent offences committed by people with mental health difficulties. (In fact, there is no difference in the number of violent acts committed by people with and without mental health difficulties; rather, people with mental health difficulties are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violent attacks than those without. See footnote.)
- Managing the stresses of university such as being away from home / home country; high pressure, deadlines; financial pressures. Students with mental health issues are likely to be more vulnerable to these and other stresses.
Students with Mental Health Issues will either:
- Be experiencing mental health difficulties for the first time or
- Know about their mental health issues but choose not to disclose or
- Know about their mental health issues and choose to disclose.
Identifying students in difficulty:
Are you concerned about the person? For example, have you noticed:
- Changes in attendance such as increased absences?
- Uncharacteristic emotional responses e.g. emotional outbursts, mood swings, agitation, withdrawal?
- Increased use of drugs and/or alcohol?
- Changes in physical appearance and/ or behaviour
What support can I offer?
Speaking to students:
Mental health difficulties are usually invisible. Speaking to a student you are concerned about or who has come to speak to you, may offer a critical point of contact for them.
- Find ways to communicate to the whole class that you are open and available for students to come and see you, confidentially, if they have any problems.
- Show an intolerance for jokes and asides that may be alienating to students with mental health issues.
- Find a private space when speaking to an individual student.
- Find out from the student in a respectful, open-ended way, if anything is troubling them and what support or help they would find most useful. They will know best about what they need.
- Listen as unjudgementally and supportively as possible. Avoid the temptation to give advice. Your main role is to identify the nature of the problem and refer appropriately (see referral options below).
- Feel free to explain your boundaries and keep to these. For example, if a student gets very upset and needs something from you that you can’t provide, explain this and refer. You could wait until they feel calmer and possibly offer to go with them / book the appointment with them / ask if they would like someone else to do this with them.
- Don’t insist that the student tells you what is troubling them. You are inviting them to share, but it is their choice whether they do or not.
- Don’t insist that the student takes your advice or goes to counselling etc. It is up to them what they choose to do from here. The only exception is if you think they are a danger to themselves or others, in which case call Student Services (020 7074 5015) or the emergency services on 999
- Don’t diminish the problem or give reassurance with ‘I’m sure you’ll be fine’ ‘You’re making too big an issue of this’ etc.
Where to refer students
The main point of contact is Student Services on the 3rd floor of Vernon Square. Student Services also welcomes individual queries from staff who may seek specific support or advice on how to support students.
Mental Health and Wellbeing Advisor
Any member of staff with concerns about a student or any student who has concerns about their own emotional wellbeing or that of someone else can access confidential support from the Mental Health and Wellbeing Advisor, Sachiko Kishi. This could be a one-off meeting, or it could be a regular arrangement throughout their studies at SOAS. In some instances students may be able to get more structured support from a mentor. Students can contact the Student Services Administrator on 020 7074 5015 firstname.lastname@example.org to make an appointment.
Student Disability Advisors
The Student Disability Advisors will be able to advise on matters relating to provision and adjustments for students with mental health difficulties, to advise you on ways of supporting the student and assist the student him or herself. Please call 0207 074 5015 to book an appointment or email email@example.com
Alison Barty is the Senior Counsellor and Head of Student Services and is best placed to advise you if you believe a student may be a risk to themselves or to others. The counselling service also provides a regular, discrete place where your students can talk to someone whose task is to listen carefully and help them to make sense of events or experiences that may be on their mind as well as explore options to enable them to feel more in control of their life.
Useful additional reading
Helping Students to Succeed produced by SOAS counselling service