Higher education | Keeping on top of mental health
Going to university can be an exciting prospect, but it is also can also be a departure into the unknown, away from the relative security of school and home life. For those with mental health problems, adapting to that change alongside striving for academic success can present a particular challenge. Those pressures are likely to increase with the changes wrought by the challenge of adapting to university life in the midst of a pandemic.
In recent years, universities have become much more aware of the mental health issues that affect their students. It’s no longer a topic that can be ignored, and if it is, it can cause a number of legal and regulatory consequences. However, tutors and other university staff are not trained mental health professionals, so how can institutions ensure their students’ needs are appropriately met?
The concept of ‘reasonable care’
“Reasonable care” is a term derived from the law of negligence, which requires universities to take ‘reasonable care’ not to cause foreseeable harm by careless acts or omissions (i.e. a duty of care) . For liability to arise, there must be a causal link between the University’s acts or omissions and the harm that occurs, where a court regards it as fair, just and reasonable in the circumstances to impose such liability.
Mental ill-health is also likely to be considered a disability, giving rise to a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to prevent students from suffering substantial disadvantage when compared with non-disabled students. Depending on the type of mental ill-health, that could require universities to provide alternative modes of assessment or to alter the learning environment.
‘In loco parentis’
Although universities have a responsibility to take reasonable care not to harm their students, they are not in loco parentis, largely because students are mostly adults. Where universities do enrol students who are under 18 and legally defined as children, it is unsuitable to describe the relationship in terms of the care that a loving parent would bestow on their child in the home. Universities do not have the proximity to their students that parents have to their children or that schools have to their pupils.
Providing support to students
To ensure positive outcomes for students, universities should take into account the characteristics of their student body. If mental ill-health is an increasingly common concern, then universities should consider providing a variety of support services, including:
- Wellbeing workshops
- Counselling sessions
- Social clubs
- Exercise programmes
These can help students to navigate the challenges that university and young adulthood can pose, while maintaining proper professional boundaries. Staff at the coalface should also be aware of the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
Students enforcing rights
Students have become much more willing to enforce their rights, particularly as consumers, and if disabled, under the Equality Act. In addition, parents of disabled students often feel compelled to advocate for their childrens’ needs, even though they have no direct legal relationship with the university. As such, it is important that all staff understand their duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students.
Staff sometimes feel that they are being asked to provide mental health support that transcends their expertise as educators. It is important to recognise that if staff assume responsibility for providing specific health care advice, the university becomes vulnerable to liability if that advice falls below the standards of a reasonably competent healthcare professional and causes harm as a result.
Professional boundaries must be maintained and any concerns regarding a student’s mental-ill health should be dealt with by encouraging students to seek professional help or by making a referral to the appropriate internal support service.
Universities need to recognise the barriers that online learning can create and roll out changes to ensure that students still have access to the support that they need, albeit remotely. For instance, the provision of virtual office times where they can speak to tutors and making the cohort aware of online counselling services will enable students to keep in touch with their key points of contact and gain access to the support they need.
Those initiatives are a realistic recognition of the important role universities can play without imposing responsibilities for activities that are more appropriately discharged by the health service and without resorting to outdated legal concepts such as that of in loco parentis.
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