Only two of the UK’s 20 top universities offer the option for parents to be contacted in the event of a student’s mental health crisis due to ambiguity over data protection laws.
In an analysis of data protection policies published by the most prestigious universities, as defined by The Complete University Guide, HuffPost UK found:
- Just two institutions, Bristol and Exeter, have “opt-in” data sharing policies, allowing students the option of permitting universities to inform parents or guardians if their mental health causes concern;
- None of the other 18 top universities ask students about sharing information with parents as a matter of course, with many citing data laws as a reason;
- Confusion over what constitutes an emergency requiring the disclosure of information, with some institutions saying such a situation must be “life or death”, while others say there must be simply a “threat” to wellbeing.
Research suggests overwhelming support among students for a so-called “opt-in” measure, asking for consent over whom can be contacted should their mental health decline, with three-quarters of those surveyed by the Higher Education Policy Institute signalling agreement with the policy.
It comes as the issue of student mental health gains traction in Whitehall, with the Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, demanding universities do more to protect vulnerable scholars.
At Exeter, an “opt-in” question – regarding who can be told what – is posed to students via an online consent form when they first contact the university’s wellbeing support service, while at Bristol, the option is to be given to all students as they register this month.
But the other 18 institutions differed greatly in their data protection policies, revealing a confusing picture of what constitutes an emergency and what third parties, including the NHS, might be told.
Warwick, University College London (UCL) and Imperial College London do not mention parents or next-of-kin in their guidance for confidentiality around student mental health.
The other 15 universities do mention parents and next-of-kin, but state that a students’ consent for disclosing information must be sought before staff pass on details to anyone, no matter how severe a situation may be.
Most, though not all, of the other institutions surveyed said they may choose to disclose information to essential parties in an emergency or exceptional circumstances.
One defined such a scenario as “life or death”, but offered no further details on how this would be determined.
James Murray, the father of a young man who took his own life at Bristol University, believes that data sharing is an area that universities could vastly improve.
His son Ben, 19, became the 11th student to die by suspected suicide while studying at Bristol University since 2016, and the father is now campaigning for better information sharing within universities and between them and third parties.
“Ben fell into the category of the two-thirds of student suicides who were never known to support services,” he says. “So the only chance of capturing his consent to share any data would be at registration.”
He recalls a trip he took with Ben on a walking holiday in the remote Scottish highlands. As they checked in to their hostel, they were handed a form by the manager. “It said ... ‘who should we call if we don’t hear from you by a certain time?’ They also asked for more details like ‘if you hit trouble, what’s your Plan B?’”
He thinks the anecdote is pertinent to how universities should also be better prepared in case of an emergency. “So if you do get stuck, somebody is going to come and help you out. And that’s the metaphor for if universities are seriously worried about your wellbeing, please ‘opt-in’ to giving a name and a contact we can reach out to help you. To me, that’s common sense.”
Murray recalls being told by a vice-chancellor that their university’s legal department had advised them that more could be done within current legislation to help students in crisis.
“The feeling from parents, including myself, is ‘if only I’d known, then I could have done something to intervene’,” Murray adds. “It is as much a question of educating staff as to what the process of escalation should be once we’ve spotted those signs. There is a lot they can do.”
Murray is not the only bereaved parent to highlight data protection as an issue they wish to see reviewed.
The parents of Ceara Thacker, a 19-year-old Philosophy student, who died at Liverpool University this year, said they first they heard of their daughter’s previous attempted suicide as they packed up her belongings inside her room on campus following her death.
“We, as her parents, were the last to know,” Ceara’s father, Ian, said in an interview earlier this month. “That’s stuck with me. It has to change.”
Uncertainty around data protection laws could be an explanation for the differences in approach to disclosing sensitive information.
Legal experts said universities should not find themselves in a position where they can act to help students in emergency situations but don’t because of promises over confidentiality.
One data protection lawyer said it was not the role of legislation to stop universities from helping students in crisis. But at the same time, they said, there may well be good reasons for why a student does not want a particular person to be contacted.
There are also potential issues, too, in seeking consent when a student registers in September, and then, for instance, sharing information months later. Another lawyer HuffPost UK spoke to pointed out that, after a passage of time, things could have changed to the extent that the very worst person is informed.
What’s more, the entire area of disclosing sensitive, so-called “special category” data, remains relatively untested in the courts.
The LSE said: “In terms of data, we are explicit in how and when this data is shared. The Student Wellbeing Service has dedicated confidentiality policies for its Student Counselling Service as well as the Disability and Wellbeing Service.
“These are located in the wider framework of School-wide policies in relation to Safeguarding, Risk, as well as Data Protection.”
Warwick said it had comprehensive data protection policies governing student data and that it works hard to ensure students know what mental health support is available.
UCL said it will “continue to work with our student groups, staff and with our health service partners across London, to ensure any student who wants helps, has access to the best support at the most effective time”.
Imperial College London did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
For Murray, clarity over whom can and should be told when a student reaches crisis point cannot come soon enough. “We are talking about providing people with options, and that is what life is about,” he says. “Life is about having options, if you choose not to take the option that’s fine. But shouldn’t the option be there? Let’s allow young adults the option of choosing what they want to do.”
HuffPost UK reported on Thursday how top universities continue to lack student mental health policies despite an explosion in demand for pastoral care and renewed government scrutiny.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
This article is part of HuffPost UK’s series investigating student mental health across the UK. If you would like to get in touch with our reporter, email George.Bowden@huffpost.com.