The University of Edinburgh has recently made progress to the implementation of a new policy regarding the support and action on students’ mental health. ‘The Mandatory Interruptions’ amendment would allow university officials and staff to essentially pull students out of their studies in severe cases where students are faced with “factors outwith their control, including disability, medical conditions, or mental ill-health.”
The current Support for Student Policy gives students a clear option to take an interruption in study if deemed needed. However, over the past two years, the university has been developing a more authoritative approach to handling students in serious mental or physical health crises.
The Edinburgh University Students’ Association is currently leading the opposition to policy development. In response, students have also published an open-letter regarding their position on the policy legislation. Within the open-letter, four key concerns are outlined regarding the amendment.
First, is the issue of Mandatory Interruptions acting as a deterrent to disclosures of mental ill-health as well as requests for additional support. The new scheme would put students in an uncomfortable position with the knowledge that the university holds authority regarding a situation that the student should be able to seek support themselves.
The open-letter reads: “It is therefore likely that even the possibility of a mandatory interruption being the outcome of the Support for Study process will act as a barrier to some students who would otherwise be willing to engage with the process, thus undermining the university’s work to destigmatise mental ill-health and encourage students to seek support when they are struggling.”
Secondly, “the inherently punitive nature of mandatory interruptions” is raised as a concern, where the new policy would communicate a hostile approach to students’ mental health: “it is clear that the experience of being forced, against your will to take a break from university life is one which many students find to be at best unsettling and at worst traumatic.
“By taking the choice of whether to interrupt out of the hands of individual students, the university turns what could be an empowering experience – with a student taking control of their recovery and wellbeing – into an experience which strips them of agency, and sends the message that university staff – the majority of whom will have no background in physical or mental health – are more capable of deciding what is best for them than they are.”
The third point within the open-letter highlight further concerns that the Mandatory Interruption would cause additional distress of exacerbation of the original situation.
“It is important to recognise that for many students, [leaving the university for an equally or more supportive environment through mandatory interruption] simply isn’t an option and in some cases, returning home is likely to cause additional stress.”
The concern reiterates the risk that students could be “left in limbo with even less support than they would have had as a student.”
Finally, the issue on who makes, and on what standards, the decision, that dictates whether a student is well enough to return to their studies, is raised. “A challenge for students who wish to return to their studies but who are not “better” by the university’s measures, [raises] questions about how ‘well’ students need to be in order to earn their place here.”
The Student spoke with VP Welfare Kai O’Doherty, who detailed the Students’ Association stance on the matter. O’Doherty discussed how the university has been advocating for the mandatory interruptions policy over the course of two years, and that the Students’ Association has consistently held an opposing stance.
Currently, the policy is waiting to be approved by the Curriculum and Student Progression Committee
(CSPC), on which VP Education Diva Mukherji sits as the sole representative for the student body – an imbalance of student representation on a board that directly impacts student policy.
Specifically, Kai spoke on the added stress on students, when there is a “further stigmatisation of mental-health,” discouraging open communication between students and staff when a looming threat of mandatory removal exists. Whilst only a small number of students are stated to be impacted by such removal, Kai highlighted how “even those few students matter,” and the larger issue at hand is the message this spread on how the university should be dealing with mental health.
Kai did make clear, that whilst the mandatory interruption policy has been received with criticism by the Students’ Association, the university is coming from a place of genuine concern and care for the wellbeing of the student body. Irregardless, the consequences of such a policy could have much larger implications, as outlined in the open letter.
Further research published by the Students’ Association also reveals the disheartening realities at other universities that have implemented a similar policy of authoritatively natured mandatory interruption. Students at universities including Oxford, Bristol and Yale have addressed the issues with mandatory leave regarding stress and stigmatisation.
The research concludes that “mandatory withdrawal is a harrowing experience for students that causes more harm than good.
“There is evidence to suggest that these measures are in place to dodge poor publicity and legal liability as opposed to supporting students and taking actions in their best interest.”
To support students against the Mandatory Interruptions Policy, students can sign the open-letter here.
For further updates on this matter, follow the Students’ Association along with News and Comment sections of The Student.
Image: Shannen Tioniwar