Openness By Whom And Of What?

In preparation for a talk last week entitled, ‘Mental Health: How Do We Encourage Openness And Meet Higher Demand For Services?’, there were two questions that seemed particularly topical. The first was, should we encourage openness around mental health if services can’t meet demand?

I had put the title of the talk to my Twitter followers, and one student suggested that we shouldn’t encourage openness if services are inadequate because we’ll “just be letting students down”. The assumption seems to be that the only reason for openness is to encourage use of services; this might be one reason, but if we’re talking about openness in a general sense, then there are many more that are just as important — some of which follow.

As another Twitter follower noted, there is a need for more understanding of self-care – something which openness ought to encourage through the sharing of information and resources. Openness can also improve the fit between students and services by educating students about the most appropriate service for their needs. Openness means services get more of those most in need, and less of those that would benefit from other services or that can figure out a solution themselves.

If openness increases demand for services, it also puts more pressure on those in a position to fund services. More shameful than an inability to meet demand is the concealment of insufficiencies, because it lifts pressure from those tasked with allocating resources.

I noted in my talk that the term ‘openness’, as used in the context of student mental health, needs to be unpacked. There are different things we might be open about – namely our mental health, or mental health in general; and there are is openness with different people – our friends & family, or institutions & authority figures. Then there is, of course, the matter of who’s being open. In this case, we’re mostly talking about the need for students to be open, but it’s equally as important that institutions are being open so that students can make informed decisions.

It’s the under-appreciated complexity of openness that leads into the second question: Why should students be open? (I’ve addressed this question before in the context of disclosure rates.)

Since the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report on student mental health in 2011, there have been calls for institutions to be more honest and open about their support provision and commitment to students’ welfare by publishing a formal and publicly available mental health policy. (Annie Grant of MWBHE is currently surveying universities to find out how many have policies in place, and hopefully the results will be available before the end of the year.) The most important reason for such a document is that, without one, it’s very difficult for institutions to be held to account; not just by those outside of the institution but by themselves.

A mental health policy is also a statement of intent and a commitment to being open and transparent. If institutions are not being open about what they can and cannot do, it’s hardly surprising that their members might also want to withhold information about themselves.

The powerpoint presentation from my talk can be downloaded here, and an action plan for building a ‘whole-institution approach to wellbeing’ is available here.