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Students, please don’t suffer in silence...

At a recent family gathering I was most surprised to see my eldest niece who is a second year undergraduate and in the middle of exams. 

Stressed student
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Sharika is an employment and discrimination solicitor with a particular interest in access to justice for all and tackling inequality, she tweets as @SharikaParbin
Normally during the exam season she only leaves her room for comfort breaks, food and the occasional trip to pick up books from her university. It was therefore good to see her at a time of such pressure although I was  a little concerned by her opening question.
 
"If a student is stressed" she asked  "or even depressed, does the university need to help?"  Inevitably I quietly panicked thinking this sounded like a cry for help and my immediate response was “Are you okay?”.  She reassured me that she was but that she knew of someone who was in a difficult situation. We discussed the issue in more detail and I assured her that of course the university has a duty to help. Before we could continue however, we were ‘conveniently’ interrupted, as is so often the case at family gatherings, and that was the end of the conversation.  I told my niece, before leaving, that in light of what she had told me, this would be the subject of my next blog at work. So here it is niece!
 
I am hoping that with this blog I am able to reach out to students as I know that being a university student, and in particular at undergraduate level, can be stressful. Sometimes life seems to throw you a curveball during these undergraduate years. Students can find themselves in a situation where anxiety and stress take control. This then impacts on study and the result is things seem to spiral out of control. In my view in these situations professional support at university is crucial.
 
If you are suffering from anxiety, stress, depression etc then please do not suffer in silence.
 
Speak to your GP and in addition approach your tutor or course leader to talk to them about your concerns. Universities should also have professional counsellors with whom you can book one-to-one sessions. Details are usually on university websites or you can seek advice through the Students' Union.  Universities should also have specialist support services in place e.g. specific advisory services for disabled students. In short, whatever your concern, approach the professionals and get support.
 
In terms of where you stand with the law, universities have a duty to take positive steps to help students with disabilities to manage their studies.  You may of course not consider yourself to be disabled but from a legal perspective you may satisfy this definition. Stress, anxiety and depression can be debilitating. If this mental condition(s) is significantly impacting on your daily life and has lasted 12 months or more, is likely to last 12 months or more, or is likely to recur then the education provider will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments.  My advice is to make the university aware of your disability.  In some cases it may be arguable that a university had ‘constructive knowledge’ of your disability. This means that they could reasonably have been expected to know about your disability - this will be fact specific.
 
Adjustments that a university could provide include providing you with additional time to complete coursework and/or exams, extended book loans  and one- to-one support before or during exam and assessment periods.
 
Even with exams imminent, you can still make that approach and see if the adjustment(s) / support that you require can be provided. If you are told that they can't, be bold and query the reasons for that decision. Make notes of any conversations you have on the subject in case you want to take matters further.  If you do, the starting point could be doing so formally through the University’s internal complaints procedure.
 
There is also an independent body called the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (‘OIA’) which has been set up to review student complaints. As stated on their website, it is free to students and deals with individual complaints against Higher Education Providers in England and Wales. You should familiarise yourself with the OIA’s complaints procedure and their rules as there are some complaints that they cannot review. A link to their website is below.
 
http://www.oiahe.org.uk/
 
It is also worth bearing in mind that time limits to bring disability discrimination claims are tight so you may wish to get advice to avoid missing the deadline.
 
There is some useful information on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s website, links below and you may be interested in the recent BBC item, link also below.
 
https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/reasonable-adjustments-disabled-pupils
 
https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/advice-and-guidance/further-and-higher-education-institutions-provisions-act
 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44091501
 
I hope that any students who feel that these concerns are of particular relevance to them, including my niece's friend, find this blog helpful. Please do spread the word as others may not be aware of their rights. And of course I wish you every success in the weeks ahead.

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