Study confirms mental health issues in uni students are being largely ignored

May 03, 2017
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Last month, a study by Headspace and NUS revealed that an alarmingly high number of Aussie students were experiencing mental health issues. Just a month after this report was released, another report has been released that confirms uni students are not getting the help they need to cope with mental illness and university. Released by Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, the report delves deep into the issues facing students and what needs to change.

Breaking down the causes behind students' poor mental health

In any given year, at least one in four students will experience a mental health issue, and Orygen has attributed this to a few key stresses. They listed “A lack of sleep, poor diet, drug and alcohol use, financial stress, work/study balance, living away from family and performance pressures” as reasons that can lead to poorer mental health and higher stress among students.

The financial stress facing students has been in the spotlight in the last couple of days, as university cuts in next week’s budget will mean increased fees and a lower threshold for HECS repayments. The stress comes from the fact that students will be paying more for their degrees and will need to pay it back sooner.

UNSW Student Emily Wilson*, who has been diagnosed with anxiety, agrees that these stresses, paired with the pressure of finding a full-time job after uni, makes her anxiety even harder to deal with.

“In your final year, all you hear about is the fact there are no jobs out there for grads. It's really stressful knowing it might take months to find a full-time job after uni.

“I think I contribute to some of the stress myself by not getting enough sleep and not always taking care of my health, but it’s a vicious cycle that’s caused by the uni stress in the first place.”

Not providing students with the support they need may result them dropping out and is potentially damaging career prospects or resulting in longer-term mental health problems.

Why aren’t students getting the help they need?

While the report does say universities aren’t doing enough, they blame this on a lack of government policy to support the unis. Without the right policies and resources available to both universities and the mental health sector, they can’t hope to tackle this massive issue alone.

The report also revealed that there has been an increased demand for university counselling and disability support services, but not enough staff to support this demand. A 2016 study found that no Australian uni had the capacity to meet the increased demand, with every uni falling short of the International Association of Counseling Services’ recommendation of one counsellor per 1000 to 1500 students. Both the 2016 study and the 2017 Orygen found that “Australia is falling behind in comparison to the UK, USA and Canada in efforts to understand and address the mental health needs of university students.”

The damaging results

The lead author of the report Vivienne Browne believed that these issues would have a carry-on effect.

“Not providing students with the support they need may result them dropping out and is potentially damaging career prospects or resulting in longer-term mental health problems,” she said.

Emily says in the middle of her degree, she considered dropping out more than once.

“All the stress just became too much so I spent a few semesters studying part-time and I took a semester off in the middle too. I’ve had to stay at uni way longer and graduate later than the rest of my friends.” 

I think I contribute to some of the stress myself by staying up late and not taking care of my health, but it’s a vicious cycle that’s caused by the uni stress in the first place.

What needs to change?

One of the key recommendations in the report is the fact that higher education and mental health policies need to change. While mental health is taught in Australian high schools, the report criticises the fact that this education isn’t then extended to be taught in a university setting.

As well as closing the gap in mental health research and building partnerships between unis and community mental health systems, the report recommends “Establishing comprehensive and nationally recognised guidance to support universities to embed a whole-of-institution response to student mental health and wellbeing".

*Names changed for privacy reasons

Lauren Piggott

Image: Francisco Osorio, Flickr Creative Commons license

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