By Sara Wilson and Tabatha Griffin
Mental illness can be a disruptive and frustrating disability when it comes to success in education and training, because students may be academically able but still debilitated by their condition. Students with mental illness face an unenviable dilemma: to keep their illness a secret, without drawing on specialist support; or to risk stigma and prejudice by disclosing that they have mental health issues.
A new report by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Unfinished business: student perspectives on disclosure of mental illness and success in VET, provides an insight into the way that students in the VET (vocational education and training) sector feel about this issue, and is one of the first pieces of research in Australia or internationally to get the perspective of the students themselves. Authors Annie Venville and Annette Street used a number of methods to access these hard-to-reach students for their study: presenting information to classes onsite, recruiting institute directors and disability staff to let students know about the project, and advertising on websites and on campus. They also surveyed VET practitioners and disability support staff, to gauge their attitudes towards disclosure of a disability and the ensuing support which teachers can offer. Students and staff share a common aim: for students with mental illness to get the best outcome possible in their course, so that they complete successfully.
Venville and Street conducted a focus group of 20 students and 20 practitioners, split across four different VET institutes. All students were undertaking a qualification at certificate III level or higher. The research found that students and staff have very different perspectives on the issue of disclosing mental illness. As well as fearing rejection, prejudice and being labelled as different – or, as one student put it, 'the depressed guy' – some students see disclosure as an expression of weakness. They believe that keeping their condition private is a matter of personal integrity and shows that they had the confidence and self-reliance to cope on their own. In addition, many don’t see their mental illness as a disability, or feel that this term accurately represents their problems. Of the 20 students interviewed, only five had disclosed their condition; and only one student said that they would disclose again if they undertook further study.
TAFE teaching and support staff, on the other hand, feel strongly that all students with mental illness should reveal their condition, and that to do so showed a willingness to take responsibility for their mental health and a commitment to academic success. Because study supports are available for those who do disclose, it seems obvious to teachers that this is a student’s best way of accessing vital help. However, teaching staff and disability support staff revealed different attitudes to the follow-up if a student did disclose. Equity and specialist support staff had some confidence in their ability to provide support and guidance, whereas teaching staff were more concerned about their lack of time, experience and available resources.
Interviews with students and staff also revealed a problem with the process after disclosure was made. Students assumed that by providing information about their illness in the enrolment form, teachers would then be notified of their condition. This turned out not to be the case; in fact, staff were none the wiser after a disclosure was made. Students and staff agreed on one thing: 'that disclosure at enrolment usually leads nowhere'.
The authors suggest that a clear delineation needs to be made between data collected for the purposes of organisational reporting and information which flags the need for student support and teacher awareness. Data for organisational needs and the national statistical collections are vital to gain an accurate picture of the student cohort and trends. But follow-up and support for students is also crucial. Most importantly, the process for providing this assistance needs to be clear, so that students can access available resources.
This report raises some interesting issues, but cannot resolve them all. Whatever the capabilities of organisations, the current process for finding out which and how many students have a mental illness appears not to be working well. Non-disclosure may be the right avenue for some; for others, it might mean they are missing out on the opportunity to get the support they need.
Venville and Street offer some practical examples that can help students overcome barriers to successful study. These include supplying clear assessment tasks and feedback; granting extensions for assignments when necessary; and providing note-takers for students who have trouble concentrating or retaining lectures. Monitoring student attendance and academic performance with offers of study assistance is another way of providing support. None of these strategies are specific to mental health, and some are more costly than others, but they do offer some solutions to improving retention and completion rates both for these students and the wider population.
The National VET Equity Advisory Committee recommended in the Equity Blueprint for 2011–2016 that learner voices be listened to and acted upon, particularly those of the disadvantaged who struggle to be heard. Unfinished business offers a window into the sensibilities of those who face mental illness, and the complexity of the decision to disclose.
You can access the report Unfinished business: student perspectives on disclosure of mental illness and success in VET at http://www.ncver.edu.au/publications/2465.html