I’m racing past the crowds. Darting in and out. Side to side. Out of my way. I need to get past. I need to breath. I’m going. To. Feint. I manage to get past. I’m now running up the road. Trying to concentrate on the task in hand which is to get to a safe place. Or a place where I can relax. When the crowds clear it actually gets worse. I can’t stop concentrating on feeling feint and dizzy because my mind is no longer focussed on getting through the crowds. I start to panic so I start to run. If I don’t concentrate on running my mind will more than likely go back to the fact that I’m about to feint or stop breathing. So I carry on running. Eventually I find the back street where I can walk without seeing anyone and where my breathing can get back to normal. Once I’ve relaxed and broken back out onto the less busy pavements, I manage to calm down and I make it to work.
If you’ve experienced one, you’ll know that I’m referring to having a panic attack. The feelings I describe above were a regular occurrence in my life for about 20 or more years. Fortunately, I don’t generally experience them anymore but occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly tired or in a particularly difficult setting, maybe standing at a concert or stuck in the middle of a row in a lecture theatre, the feelings creep back around the edges.
I can’t remember exactly when I experienced my first panic attack but I do know that I feinted a couple of times when I was about 14. One time, I caught my toe on the kitchen door shortly after I had woken up and gone downstairs for breakfast. As I sat at the dining room table I felt the nausea creeping up on me and then the familiar feeling of stars forming around the outside of my vision and the loss of sound… but the sounds re-appear as if in a dream, until I regained consciousness and found myself lying on the floor at the front door of our house with the local farmer (who was delivering our milk and was a family friend) above me and my brother and mum alongside. I’d pulled the table cloth completely off the table and sent everything flying in dramatic fashion.
It happened again in secondary (high) school during a particularly hot summer’s day in a stifling design technology classroom. The teacher had come to help me and as I stood up to let him sit in my seat, I felt the rush of blood away from my head and before I knew it, I was on the floor again unconscious. I think I linked these feelings of light headedness with feinting so that when ever I was then in a confined space and felt that way, maybe because I suffered from insomnia around that time, I started to panic and had to resist the urge to run for the exit. I do remember experiencing one during my GCSE exams and had to ask for a toilet break. And then they plagued me for the next two or three decades.
Until I went to university (probably after experiencing them for about three years) I hadn’t known what they were or told anyone I was having them. It just so happened that I was studying psychology for my undergraduate degree programme and came across a small section on them in an ‘abnormal’ psychology book which was one of our recommended textbooks. Finally being able to put a name to what they were, I disclosed that I was having problems to my personal tutor who sent me to the counselling service. The counsellor explained that he could help me but that we would have to meet a few times and explore ‘issues which I might not be terribly comfortable with’. Needless to say, I wasn’t willing to explore ‘issues which I wasn’t terrible comfortable with’ so I didn’t attend. I did go to the GP who gave me a clean bill of health but offered no further guidance or referrals.
Unfortunately, they got worse before they got better and I was unable to attend many of my lectures throughout the second year of my degree course. Fortunately, I had formed a very close friendship with someone else on the course who I shared a house with. He was able to attend lectures and bring back the notes for me. This was before there was any funding available for disability services in the UK and well before any campaigns to raise awareness for mental health conditions.
It should be applauded that the minister for HE has cast a spotlight on the provision for a growing numbers of students who are identifying as having mental health difficulties. However, what isn’t clear is why a specific group of disabled students should gain so much ministerial attention and (moral) panic within headlines of major newspapers. I thought a good starting point might be an analysis of the extent of the problem by using freely available statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
This table shows the relative increase in disclosure of mental health difficulties (MHD) alongside disclosure of specific learning difficulties (SpLD)(dyslexia etc.), the overall increases in the numbers of students in general and the disclosure of all disabled students. (N.B. these are only first year UK domiciled students as the figures for all students are much harder to obtain from the HESA website – but they are a good enough sample to show the size of the effects).
What is clear is that there is cause for celebration in terms of the sector’s duty to implement the Equality Act 2010. For example, overall there has been almost a five-fold increase in the level of students who were willing to disclose some type of HESA-categorised disability. This is a great achievement for the UK in general as it is more than likely a combination of the increased awareness and acceptance of conditions such as dyslexia, autistic spectrum disorders and MHDs. Students are being diagnosed with these conditions much more frequently and are increasingly willing to tell someone about it.
Going back to the figures, in terms of SpLD there has been a 13-fold increase and for students with MHD an almost 19-fold increase. Maybe this is where the panic has come from? However, a very quick ‘eyeballing’ of the numbers shows that between 1994/95 and 2005/06 disclosure of SpLD increased five-fold which is a similar rate of increase as that which we have seen in the last 8 year period for MHD disclosure. However, there hasn’t been (or rather there wasn’t) a similar level of panic in the sector when the increases in dyslexia were identified. No minister for higher education accused the sector of failing students with SpLD as far as I am aware, although one has recently mentioned the importance of the support he received when he found out he was dyslexic at school. There are still twice as many students in HE with SpLDs than with MHD, but no headlines appearing about their support?
What is encouraging is that most universities are now well staffed to work with students who disclose MHD, often with a significant level of counselling resource and more often than not a multi-disciplinary team under the auspices of wellbeing. These resources have increasingly been bolstered by additional services provided through the NMH element of DSA funding through specialist mentoring provision. HE still seems to be the richer cousin compared to other levels of the education sector when it comes to resourcing support for SEN (a perverse quirk of the education system – fight your way into HE and get good support having contended with the continued post code lottery in schools and colleges). This was not the case for SpLD students in HE in 1994 when these statistics were first collected. There was very little provision for those students 25 years ago. Most universities now provide reasonable adjustments for SpLD students such as extra time for exams and assignments (some HEPs) and extended library loans, as well as utilising the NMH allowances from DSA to pay for specialist tuition. But it would be useful to see a comparison of the resources available for these two groups of students within HEPs.
Something else to think about: I haven’t analysed the figures for all the other categories of disability here, however policy makers ought to consider the statistics in a more holistic fashion before accusing the sector of failing to adequately support one particular group. The picture is much more nuanced that it might first appear. For example, it should be noted that there are only 936 more first year deaf students enrolling in 2016/17 (2080) than there were in 1994/95 (1144). Perhaps, not so surprising when you consider the rates at which deaf students gain 5 A*-C GCSEs. Should we be just as morally panicked? Maybe Sam Gyimah ought to tell Vice-Chancellors that prioritising these students is not negotiable? Or maybe he should just be concerned about all disabled learners in all levels of the education sector?