The Andrews government of Victoria recently pledged a royal commission into the state’s mental health services upon re-election, opening up dialogue on an important issue that will affect almost half of all Australians during their lifetime. With mental health firmly on the public agenda, let’s take this opportunity to analyse psychological support within our universities.
A worrying trend is developing in Australia’s tertiary institutions – the demand for mental health services among students is increasing, yet overwhelmed on-campus amenities are struggling to respond to the volume of enquiries. The recent announcement of federal funding for a national tertiary mental health framework is a step in the right direction; however, educators and experts alike agree that more effort should to be dedicated to helping students in need.
To commemorate the start of Movember (which raises awareness of important issues such as male suicide), we’re shifting the conversation towards mental health to see what more can be done to support our struggling university students.
The cold hard facts
Of the 1.4 million students enrolled in Australian universities, three in five are between 15 and 24 years of age. A report by Orygen, Australia’s National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, found that one in four students within this age bracket will experience mental health difficulties in any given year.
Students have reported feelings of embarrassment, anxiety, fear and shame when confronting psychological difficulties, illustrating that stigma still exists around mental health. Research has found that these feelings are particularly prevalent among male students, who generally have the highest perceived stigma and lowest help-seeking rates among all age and gender groups.
Mental health experts have identified that a number of factors can exacerbate or contribute to psychological difficulties. These include:
• Financial stress
• Overwhelming study load
• Poor sleep and dietary patterns
• Difficulty balancing work and study
• Living away from family and typical support network
• Pressure to excel
• Concern about future prospects after study
• Difficulties in personal life
• Underlying psychological, emotional and physical difficulties.
What can be done?
Orygen’s comprehensive 2017 report Under the radar: the mental health of Australian university students proposed a number of solutions at both tertiary and government levels to help improve psychological support services in universities.
The Orygen report advises that more needs to be done to provide students with adequate psychological support. Recommendations include creating and implementing new strategies that are designed to respond, intervene and prevent. Policy reform on university mental health guidelines was also suggested to better equip universities with the resources needed to meet student demand.
The lack of data on student wellbeing was highlighted as a glaring admission, with the report’s contributors advising that regular surveys to track student mental health and intervention progress would allow universities to gather meaningful information on the psychological needs of their cohort.
While mental health training already exists for university staff, the report recommends the expansion of these programs to include the student body. Monash University’s mental health first aid initiative is a great example of student integration into psychological support training – students are taught to be attentive to mental health symptoms in both themselves and others, while gaining the necessary tools to effectively respond to these difficulties. Reforming current university guidelines by introducing mental health education as a compulsory part of tertiary curriculum was also raised, as was updated training for staff members.
A multi-faceted approach to promoting mental health services has been encouraged to make sure that students are being reached across all platforms. Combining print and digital advertising – think posters around campus paired with social media updates – could help to facilitate greater awareness of mental health difficulties within universities. What is being advertised is also important, with experts suggesting that where, when and how to access mental health services should be included in promotional material.
An influx in student enquiries is overwhelming university mental health amenities across the globe, as institutions in the United Kingdom begin to outsource their counselling services to the healthcare system. The Orygen report recognises the same supply and demand issue in Australian institutions, with research suggesting that universities should seek to collaborate with civic services to ease this pressure. Building partnerships between universities and community mental health services could provide increased support to match student demand, while also supplying service provision to students who live significant distances from campus. The report also notes that the Australian Government’s current mental health mandate may require updates to better reflect collective efforts between universities and community services. The clarification of roles, responsibilities and guidelines by relevant government portfolios is suggested as the first step in creating university and community collaboration on mental health.
If you’re distressed and in need of help, please call one of the provided helplines 24 hours a day, seven days a week:
Lifeline: 13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au
Beyondblue: 1300 22 4636, www.beyondblue.org.au
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800, www.kidshelpline.com.au
MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78, www.mensline.org.au
SANE Australia: 1800 18 7263 (SANE), www.sane.org