Should we let parents/carers know of a student’s mental wellbeing?

There is a perceived gulf between the expectations of parents /carers for students at HEI
and the university system when student’s mental health is at stake. There needs to be a
holistic approach in supporting students at these vulnerable times especially when it
becomes overwhelming and challenging to the extent that the student stops being engaged
with university life and becomes isolated.
As I have written in an earlier blog Preventing Student Suicide, this is an emotive topic for so
many affected. In this blog I would like to explore the tricky subject of disclosure between
parents/carers and the HEI.
A BBC news article cites “Universities need to be much clearer about whether they will
contact parents if students have a mental health crisis, says a social mobility charity.”
Charity My Big Career founder Deborah Streatfield says students and their families can be
left unsure what will happen if there are mental health problems.
The Department for Education says it has asked the university sector to consider how to
better share information with students’ families. “Universities should work to improve how
they involve family members in mental health support, while ensuring that students’ best
interests are central to any decisions about their care.”
In my role as an academic in a HEI I have come across both cases for and against notifying
the parents/carers. This is a difficult scenario as we must honour students wishes and meet
the legal requirements of GDPR. Since University students are adults, we must maintain
confidentiality. However, in acute cases such as attempted suicide or incidents of a serious
mental break down, we need to also take into account the support students will need while
at university and potentially back at home with families.
University has a duty of care for these students’ wellbeing while honouring their
independence and autonomy; however, when their mental state is not up to making
rational and safe decisions this becomes a real challenge. I have also met a few students
whose source of their mental health condition is due to a breakdown of the relationship
with their families for a variety of reasons.
Some universities have taken decisions to have an opt in system in giving them the consent
to notify the parents/carers should the students become unwell. But not all HEIs have taken
that step. Sara Khan, National Union of Students vice-president, says: “We cannot know
when contacting parents and families without consent could put a student in danger.
Removing this confidentiality would make students less likely to come forward and seek
But should teenagers, used to support from parents and teachers at school, be expected to
suddenly become independent adults when they unpack their bags at university? As I
mentioned in another blog Transition starting and staying in HEI and living independently is
a big life changing time for these young students.

We need life skills that students can access and apply in order to empower themselves at
the starting point of their wellbeing becoming a challenge. We are not talking about a
serious mental illness that requires qualified health care professionals, we are talking about
equipping students with processes and tools that they can use easily and effectively so they
do not necessarily need external agencies. This in turn can prevent serious mental health
issues from developing, giving them true independence and ownership in living their life
fully. When put into practice and used at the moment of the distress The SEJ will not only
prevent escalation of the suffering it can also give them the courage to ask for support since
the SEJ fosters self-responsibility in managing their own wellbeing. This is what the SEJ
Process does for University students; supporting them during the most formative journey of
their young adult life.
Recently a sample of students who were asked whether the SEJ Process has made any
impact showed a 100% improvement in 3 key areas of their life; Starting university, Personal
wellbeing, and their Academic career.* We will be able to share the findings from this
independent research in future publications, but this is one of many strategies’ universities
can offer in empowering these young people in enabling to reach their potential.
Dr M Howard-Kishi
*Independent study on the impact of the SEJ to be published Autumn 2021

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