In May 2017, Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, released a report called “Under the Radar: the mental health of Australian university students”. The report (link) painted a concerning picture regarding the numbers of university students experiencing mental ill health, and the university, education and policy environments that have potentially given rise to these issues.
I spent some time with the report when it came out, and thought I’d share some observations. Spoiler: I think the report provides a number of excellent suggestions for activities Flinders could undertake to become a more health and well-being focused university. Some of these are activities that we in Health, Counselling and Disability services are leading at the moment.
There are around 1.4 million students studying in Australian universities (note: if you, the students, decide to start a revolution, it might be quite successful). Conservatively, it is estimated that 25% will experience mental ill health in any given year.
In reality, this figure could be much higher. According to a survey conducted by headspace and National Union of Students (NUS), “close to 70 per cent of respondents [TAFE and university students] rated their mental health as poor or fair. While two-thirds reported high or very high psychological distress over the past 12 months.”
Whilst at first glance, this might appear to be a ‘health’ issue, rather than an education issue, we know that students with mental ill health are more likely to consider exiting or actually exit their course early. This has individual implications (job prospects), but also ongoing economic implications (e.g. increased downstream health care costs). For universities, drop-outs have financial implications, because students who leave their courses, don’t pay for their courses.
Universities are not unaware of the problem. Many universities (including Flinders) have on-campus health and well-being supports. But these supports are being hit hard. University counselling services around Australia are struggling to cope with existing demand, which is increasing year on year, both in absolute numbers but also the complexity of the presenting problems.
Concerning still is that university students continue to report significant stigma associated with seeking help for mental ill health because of concerns regarding the implications for their study, reputation, job prospects and reactions from family/friends. If all students who are experiencing mental ill-health actually sought help from on-campus counselling services, those services would be over-run.
Curiously, while Australia has been a leader in youth mental health reform, activities focusing on the mental health of university students have been largely absent – i.e. this is a worsening problem that has been mostly ignored.
What can universities do?
The report recommends a number of actions that universities can take to address the increasing burden of mental ill health in students. These include:
Policy and guidelines
Develop an institution wide mental health strategy and implementation plan, followed by specific guidelines on how to facilitate improved educational outcomes for students with a mental illness, and clearer procedures and policies for staff on responding to mental health issues among students.
Conduct regular surveys of health & well-being in the student population to obtain up-to-date estimates of need, and track the impact of interventions.
Training and awareness
Ensure that all staff are appropriately trained in mental health literacy and first aid.
Increased promotion of the services that are available to students (e.g. financial and counselling services) and normalising the process of using these services (e.g. addressing fears about confidentiality in counselling services).
More effectively promote health and well-being services that are available in the community.
More effectively promote evidence-based mental health resources that are available online (see my post on Digital Resources for your mental health)
Mental health interventions
Develop or locate and implement early intervention and well-being programs targeting risk factors specific to university students such as academic pressures, financial pressures, relocation, transitional stress, drug and alcohol use, diet, sleep, balancing commitments.
Develop or locate and implement programs for higher risk or vulnerable groups such as international students, rural/regional, law and medicine, low SES, ATSI, students with disabilities and totally online students.
Fund counselling services at levels which reflecting increasing demand and complexity (recommended clinician:student ratios of 1:1000, 1:1500).
Look to embed existing online interventions (e.g. like those found on https://moodgym.com.au/) into university IT platforms (e.g. FLO).
Expand the range and type of service delivery options available to students by forming partnership with regional primary health and mental health providers (e.g. through Primary Health Networks)
Research and innovation
Support partnerships between on-campus and community services and academia within the university to prioritise research on university student mental health
Conduct research on staff perceptions of students who disclose mental health issues and appropriate responses.
Explore innovative service models for mental health delivery within the university (e.g. peer led programs)
What we are doing here at Health, Counselling and Disability services
In 2017, thanks to SSAF funding, Health and Counselling Services (HCS) employed an e-Mental Health Project Officer – Dr Gareth Furber (thats me!!). I’m leading a number of service developments in order to better address the rising demand for counselling services.
The first is this Blog. My goal for this blog is to make it a central place from which we can:
- Write articles and make podcasts and videos on how students can build skills, knowledge and resilience relevant to their studies. For example, see the series on procrastination.
- Alert students to the many health and well-being services/programs that are available to them on-campus, in the community and online.
- Profile some of the amazing and innovative health and well-being research that is being conducted within the university.
- Provide a place for past and present students to tell their stories of how they coped with the demands of university life.
I’ll also be revamping the Health, Counselling and Disability services website to streamline the information we provide to students. As part of this revamp, we’ll be implementing an online self-screening and referral process for counselling services which will provide students with a more individualised and targeted response to their counselling needs.
Finally, behind the scenes, we are making changes to the data we collect, so we can better structure our services to the types of problems that students are presenting with.
We also have some exciting plans for the future, including:
- building some well-being and resilience programs to sit within FLO
- partnering with academics in the university to monitor university-wide well-being
- working with HR to expand training for staff on mental health literacy and first aid
Ok, so that is a really stupid sub-heading cause ‘the future’ is very broad and says absolutely nothing, but I look forward to updating you on health and well-being initiatives within the university on this blog. If you’d like to get involved in making Flinders a health and well-being university – get in contact with me (see options below).
Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student?
Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter (@Dr_Furber), contact me on Skype (search for ‘eMental Health Project Officer Gareth’), or email me (email@example.com)