News, Student Voice

The Price of Support

Poverty, Mental Health, and the Financial Barriers Students Face

As both a student fellow focussing on the experiences of disabled students and a final year disabled student myself, I often feel as if I am trial running a system for review. As a low-income student suffering from CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) I often find the kinks in the system through experience. In this article I hope to highlight yet another issue that I first realised as a result of my own lived experience and later came to see was part of a much larger problem surrounding access and support for low-income disabled students.

I contacted the DSA in the summer, having spoken to disability advisors from the university I had been assured I would receive funding for a student mentor as a result of the neurological effects of my condition.

During my meeting, however, I was told that to receive this support I must provide a diagnosis of a mental health condition. I explained that I could provide a letter from my therapist and my NHS support worker, but both of these were considered insufficient in terms of evidence. As a result, I did not receive the funding or support I needed, support backed by both my doctor and mental health workers.

Struggling, I decided to pursue a diagnosis of a mental health condition. I had suffered with symptoms of mental illness since a young age but despite my history of poor mental health this proved difficult. With mental health becoming a rising problem throughout the UK, doctors are overwhelmed and whilst my GP was sympathetic, I was informed that I would likely have to wait at least three months to even speak to a person who could explain the process to me.

All of this, the energy it took to follow up doctors and DSA workers, the time spent without help I desperately need, would not be an issue if I came from a high-income background.

The evidence requirements for funding present a complex issue, it makes sense that the university and the DSA would require certain proof before they approve large sums of money to pay for support for students, but it also, however, often produces significant financial barriers to support, leaving low income disabled students with little recourse to receive the help they need.

These barriers are present in a variety of areas and for a variety of disabilities. In particular, students with unexplained medical symptoms, those who are neurodivergent, and those with mental health issues are particularly at risk. In the latter two cases, a diagnosis can prove expensive, or if done over the NHS, lengthy and exhausting. In the case of the former, Doctor’s notes can be expensive and may not meet the standards of proof required. Further, students who require technology to aide their studies as a result of their disability must pay the first £200, an amount that while inconsequential to some is impossible for others.

The financial barrier to support can cause significant damage to students leaving them without needed support. In my case, the lack of support resulted in a significant decline in my health as I struggled to manage basic needs without the help of a mentor and rapidly fell behind in my work as my neurological symptoms worsened ultimately leading to my decision to split my final year over two, sacrificing my chance to study senior law at Cambridge.

The university does give certain support to students with a ‘working diagnosis’ providing help for neurodivergent students who are in the process of obtaining a diagnosis (e.g., those who have been referred to a specialist and are awaiting their appointment) as well as funding diagnosis for those with a specific or severe learning disability. There is little recourse, however, for those with an undiagnosed mental illness (approximately 36% of people with a mental illness) or who struggle to convince their doctor to provide funding for a referral. This is of course understandable given the need to ensure students are truly suffering from the disabilities they say they are before providing alternative exam arrangements or funding. It still, however, leaves low-income students with a mental illness in a precarious position, an issue particularly concerning given the low degree attainment rates among students with a mental illness (17.4%).

It is hard to see what could be done to correct this issue, the university is barred from providing diagnosis itself, and it is not hard to see why a certain level of evidence is required. Perhaps a letter from a councillor or a referral to mental health services from a GP could be used to provide proof for certain services, the first case could help students who are able to access the six weeks of therapy provided by the university or who have been allotted sessions by their GP, the second those who are still awaiting sessions (wait times on the NHS can leave people waiting for months just to get an assessment let alone counselling).

Whilst a solution to this problem is not obvious, particularly given that it is the DSA where the majority of the problem lies, it is important we work to support students in a position similar to mine. The intersection of disability and poverty already places a greater strain on a student’s shoulders, the lack of support they are able to access as a result only worsens this issue.

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