Early usage of mental health services improves higher education students’ success


This is a quick but important one. 

The boss forwarded me an interesting factsheet from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (that is probably not a sentence that has been written many times). 

It reports on some findings coming out of a study that linked higher education data with health data. Such data linkage projects allow us to better understand how a person’s functioning in one domain (i.e. education) relates to their functioning in another domain (i.e. health). 

In this case, data linkage was used to explore the relationship between mental health service usage and university education outcomes. 


What did they find?

Mental health service usage by university students is on the increase. 21% of students were using mental health related services and/or pharmaceutical services in 2016 and this is likely to be an underestimate of use because the data didn’t capture use of counselling services (like ours), hospitalisations, community mental health services or helplines.

This is consistent with what has been known for a while that the 15-30 year old age bracket (youth to young adult) is one of the key risk periods for the development of mental health problems. Why this age range? It comes down to a few things: biology (final stages of the neurological maturation process), life stage (time of developing identity and purpose), moving away from home, onset of financial and job pressures, hormonal changes, social pressures. Basically it is a time of life where you are going through many different transitions, and we know transitions are stressful and can take a toll. Rough estimates suggest 1 in 4 young people are struggling with mental ill health in any given year. 

As far as educational outcomes go, the bad news is that students using mental health services had a 9 percent lower likelihood of completing their studies (62% versus 71%). 

The good news is that usage of mental health services early during study gives students a higher chance of completing their studies. Completion rates stabilise at 61% versus slipping further (down to 57%) for those students accessing help after their university experience. Getting help early and maintaining that help during your studies appears to be the best formula for minimising the impact of mental health problems on your academic outcomes.  


What does this mean for you?

First up, don’t be alarmed. If you have a diagnosed mental health condition and are receiving treatment, then you are doing the right thing to maximise your educational outcomes. If your condition impacts on your studies and you haven’t yet spoken to a disability advisor, consider making an appointment. There might be some additional supports/ modifications that could be made to improve your study experience. 

If you are struggling, but haven’t yet decided to reach out for assistance, maybe this article will help you make the decision. The finding that seeking and using supports early is associated with higher completion rates is a compelling one for many students. 

If you know something ‘isn’t quite right’ but you are not sure if it is mental ill health related, consider doing an online assessment. This one from the Black Dog Institute is a good start. It will help you get a sense of whether what you are experiencing is suggestive of mental ill health. Or if that isn’t your jam, make an appointment to see one of our counsellors or GPs to discuss what you are experiencing. Sometimes it takes someone validating our experience and letting us know it is worth acknowledging to convince us to take action. Also, what you are going through may well not be a mental health issue, but related more to finances or housing or similar.  

Tragically, many young people experiencing mental ill health feel like they are alone and broken and not worthy of help, so fail to reach out for assistance (estimates suggest ½ don’t reach out), even though we know they are going through the toughest mental health stage in the human lifespan. They view their difficulties as a failure of ‘character’, rather than seeing their difficulties as reflecting a need for assistance during a difficult transition. The truth is we will all need the assistance of others, at some point in our lives, in order to move forward. 


What does it mean for universities?

The fact sheet makes the point that young people with mental ill health should perhaps be viewed as an equity group, that is, a group that experiences disadvantage in relation to higher education outcomes. Existing equity groups include Indigenous Australians, people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, people from rural and isolated areas, people with disabilities, people of non-English speaking backgrounds, and women (especially women in non-traditional areas of study). 

Recognition as an equity group could mean additional funding to assist universities in helping students with mental ill health to access, participate in and succeed at university studies. To an extent, we already do this, in that the Disability Service works with students with diagnosed mental health conditions to find supports to help improve their educational experience. The numbers coming out of this research suggest however that more could be done. 

If this is an issue that is important to you, consider making contact with one of the members of the Student Council, who represent Flinders University students and advocate for improved conditions and policies in the university environment.

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