Getting the Support You Deserve 101

N.B.: This post assumes that you are in need of advice about making the best use of the support systems at your university or higher education institution. The advice here does not address how to seek medical or professional support for mental health issues. If you are concerned about your mental health, please contact your Doctor or a support network such as SAMARITANS (08457 90 90 90) or NIGHTLINE

A recent e-mail made me realise that I don't have a general "top tips to get the most out of your university" post on this blog. I should stress that this is only advice and there is no guarantee that it's effective, but I've tried to make this post informative and applicable to all higher education institutions. Here goes!

Firstly and most importantly: remember that you pay fees to attend university (unless you have a sponsorship arrangement or live in Scotland, in which case this still applies because your place is worth a lot of money and you're an investment). Part of the monetary value of your place at university is devoted to systems, such as pastoral care, which are set up to help you complete your degree and to help keep you safe, healthy and happy. DO NOT for a second think that you're an imposition if you need help - the university/higher education institution has a duty of care towards you, and if you're not feeling supported your university is failing you.

 To emphasise my point, here's something from my university's brochure on student support. Yours will have something similar:

"The University of Warwick is committed to providing a supportive and positive environment for all members of its community.

However, we recognise that there will be times in everybody’s University life when things do not go as well as you would wish. In times like these, there is a comprehensive support structure available to help with all kinds of different problems."

Furthermore, are you aware that if you have a mental health condition you are covered by the Equality Act of 2010?

"A mental health condition is considered a disability if it has a long-term effect on your normal day-to-day activity. This is defined under the Equality Act 2010.

Your condition is ‘long term’ if it lasts, or is likely to last, 12 months." 

Even if you aren't classed as 'disabled' because your problem is new, one can reasonably argue that any institution (such as a university) which does not make reasonable adjustments for the medical requirements of its members, or employees, is guilty of discriminating against them. In other words: by not treating your mental health condition with discretion, care and support an institution leaves itself open to accusations of discrimination.

So, there are a number of different things you can do to get the help you deserve. I've numbered these in terms of steps, but feel free to do everything at once to try and cover all bases! (I've given links, where available, to these services at Warwick, seeing as I go there.)
1) Contact your Personal Tutor – Explain to them how you're feeling, what you're struggling with and your concerns about your work. If your personal tutor isn't much help find a new one. There are usually systems set up for this that make it quick and painless, but even if it's a bit "unusual", simply send an e-mail to your department office and explain that you wish to change tutor. If they ask why, just say that you don't feel your current tutor is supportive of your circumstances.
2) Contact your Course Tutors – Anyone who lectures or takes classes with you. Send them an e-mail to explain your circumstances. Some of them might not even reply because tutors can be very empathetic. But at least they know, in writing, what's going on.

3) Contact your Director of Studies – This might be a departmental, Faculty or Institution DoS depending upon where you study and what their structures are. A Director of Studies tends to have a final say on how students with special circumstances are treated. They can help you fill out special circumstances forms which stay on file and are a record of your needs as a student. You may need to provide medical certificates to a DoS for them to create a file for you, but these files can be invaluable in getting extensions for work.

4) Talk to Student Support Services – These departments have a duty to focus on just you. Explain your circumstances and they should do the rest - it is, after all, their job. They can help ease workloads, write letters of recommendation on your behalf, sort out any exam arrangements and point you towards further support services such as counselling, IAPT services, peer support groups etc.

5) Talk to your Student's Union – You should have a welfare officer at your student's union. They are elected to help people like you and me. It's in their interest to be a pain in the arse to universities because it makes them look good! They can send letters, make phone calls and give you advice and help. And because they're a union, separate to your institution, they have the power to help you from the outside!
6) Contact the Senior Tutor – Senior Tutors are like super tutors. They discipline lazy or inadequate tutors. They have a lot of power and can get things moving if you feel that there's no support for you.

If none of these work, you've got a pretty good story for your student newspaper. But hopefully that won't happen :) If I've left anything out or you have any questions, please comment below!

– John (Charlie)


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