Mental health at university: ‘coming out’

Telling people about my mental health problems is difficult and it has taken me many years to be able to do so.

Sometimes I tell the wrong person and end up regretting it, but I have decided that honesty is the best policy when it comes to people who you may be studying or working with on a regular basis.

It can be a double-edged sword; if you don’t tell people then they might think that you are odd, difficult, strange or weird, if you do tell people then you run the risk of them thinking that you might attack them or completely lose control at any minute. (Yes, unfortunately some people think like that- shame on them)

Shockingly, a recent government poll revealed that 92 per cent of the British public believes that admitting to having a mental illness would damage someone’s career*.  This makes it exceedingly difficult for anyone to “admit” to having mental health problems and unfortunately adds to the stigma attached to it.  Although high profile celebrities such as Stephen Fry have told the world of their illness, it doesn’t make it any easier for ordinary people to deal with the stigma.

My suggestion for students with mental health problems is to find some kind of middle ground: go to the interview as per normal and be yourself.  An interview is not a good place to tell people that you have a mental illness and unfortunately, even though it is against the law to discriminate against people based on a disability, it still does (and probably will) happen.  However, DO NOT under any circumstances lie about anything and if you are asked a direct question about your mental health you should always tell the truth.

Once you have been offered and accepted the place on your chosen course, the disability discrimination act protects you once you are there and as long as you did not lie at any time during the application process, you should be ok.

There are several steps to a successful ‘coming out’ at university

The most important step is to contact your university’s disability services. They will be your most useful allies in this whole process. They will:

  • Provide you with information to give to fellow students, which will help them understand about mental illness and how they can help you.
  • Tell you what support is available at your University and help you access it.
  • Inform you of what benefits you may be entitled to (such as disabled students allowance, disability living allowance etc) and help you to apply for them
  • They can intervene on your behalf if they think that you are having problems with discrimination/ harassment/ bullying etc

Once you have established contact with the disability service, you should consider telling your supervisor or personal tutor. This takes a lot of courage, but if you manage to tell them it will make your time at university a lot easier.  On deciding whether to tell them you should consider:

  • Do they have any other students with disabilities or mental health problems?
  • Are they a sympathetic or understanding person?
  • Do they think in definitive terms or do they seem flexible?

If you decide to inform your supervisor, it is a good idea to take along some literature explaining your illness (the disability services should provide you with some good bits and pieces) and tell them that you are in contact with the disability service and they are supporting you. Your supervisor will probably be relieved that you have support and a plan for how you are going to complete the course and feel satisfied that you are taking charge of the situation, rather than putting all the responsibility on them.

If you don’t feel able to tell your supervisor or fellow students about your mental illness, it is still vital that you inform the disability service because if anything should go horribly wrong they will fight your corner and this may mean the difference between being able to finish your chosen course and having to give up half way through.

Whatever you decide to do, the more support and understanding you feel comfortable giving yourself, the better. This will give you the best chance of enjoying, completing and excelling in your chosen course.

*Figures are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2082 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 31st July and 3rd August 2009. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+)