Academic journal article International Journal of Training Research

Hearing Voices:: Qualitative Research with Postsecondary Students Experiencing Mental Illness

Academic journal article International Journal of Training Research

Hearing Voices:: Qualitative Research with Postsecondary Students Experiencing Mental Illness

Article excerpt


Qualitative research methods produce ethi- cal dilemmas that concern specific people, located in a particular time, place, and cul- ture. (Haverkamp, 2005, p. 155)

The Australian Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector is a major provider of post-secondary education offering a valuable stepping-stone towards participation in the community and the labour market (Hargreaves, 2011; Productivity Commission, 2011). Inter- national comparisons indicate that Australians have a high participation rate in VET (Field, Hoeckel, Kis, and Kuczera, 2009); however, stu- dents with disabilities are often under-repre- sented in course completion statistics (Karmel & Nguyen, 2008). Further, students experiencing mental illness are less likely than any other stu- dent group to complete the course in which they are enrolled (Cavallaro, Foley, Saunders & Bow- man, 2005). This raises concerns about the capacity of the sector to respond to students experiencing mental illness.

Data on the participation in and outcomes of vocational education and training for students with a disability are collected by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) through the National VET Provider Collection, the National Apprentice and Trainee Collection, and the Student Outcomes Survey. These data show that, while overall the numbers of students with a disability have increased over time, since 2005 the percentage of VET students disclosing a disability has remained at around 6% of the total student population in Australian VET institutions. Of this proportion, students disclos- ing a mental illness occupy just 13.3% (NCVER, 2013). Evidence pointing towards high rates of non-disclosure of mental illness (Griffin & Bed- die, 2011) suggests that the quantitative data rou- tinely collected by NCVER cannot provide an accurate profile of students within the VET sector who experience mental health issues. The qualita- tive portrayal can give greater attention to nuance, complexity and context (Patton, 2002).

Two early Australian studies investigating the support needs of post-secondary students sought to hear from those experiencing mental illness. McLean and Andrews (1999) examined 115 sur- vey responses from students self-identifying as having a psychiatric disability. They report devel- oping the survey questions after consultation with key stakeholders, including students; how- ever, the precise methods of these student con- sultations are not fully described. Bathurst and Grove (2002) reported student experiences of disclosing a mental health issue through analysis of the written narratives submitted by 17 stu- dents. In a more recent study exploring the lived experience of learning for VET students report- ing a diagnosed mental illness, five students par- ticipated in semi-structured interviews (Venville, 2010). The afore-mentioned studies have yielded rich data and added to our understanding of the VET student perspective; however, they provide limited methodological description and guidance for the qualitative researcher in VET. This paper attempts to address this gap.

We aim to contribute to the literature inform- ing qualitative research with VET students expe- riencing mental illness through rich description of our methodological decision-making, strategies for student recruitment, and managing partici- pant vulnerability. This commentary is timely in the context of increased pressure for researchers and policy-makers to listen to the voices of the most disadvantaged learners to aid design and delivery of the VET system (NVEAC, 2011). A brief description of the substantive study provides context for this reflection on our research, part of which privileged the voice of the VET student experiencing mental health issues.


The study was designed to investigate both the problem of low course completion rates for VET students experiencing mental illness, and student and staff perspectives of student disclosure of mental illness in VET. …

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