Plan to improve mental health support for Australian university students

Amanda Lyons

19/09/2018 2:29:49 PM

Many students struggle with stress and other issues of mental health and are unsure how to access help. AMSA and Orygen have designed a framework to address the problem on a national level.

AMSA President Alex Farrell believes student mental health has been ‘underfunded and under-talked-about for a long time’.
AMSA President Alex Farrell believes student mental health has been ‘underfunded and under-talked-about for a long time’.

‘I don’t know where to go, and I’m ashamed to be struggling at uni.’
These are the words of a student from a recent report produced by Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, to investigate the mental health of Australian university students.
A large-scale study was also conducted by headspace last year into student mental health, and it revealed some startling statistics: nearly 70% of the students surveyed rated their mental health as poor or fair, two thirds reported high or very high levels of psychological distress over the previous year, and just over 35% experienced thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
There has also been much documentation in recent years of the particular stresses placed on medical students and their sometimes tragic consequences.
‘We know a significant number of university students face financial hardship in the struggle to both complete university and support themselves,’ Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) President, Alex Farrell, told newsGP.
‘We know the actual educational process can be very stressful and can put a lot of pressure on students. We know that a lack of sleep is a problem, we know the lack of social support can be a problem.
‘For medical students there’s a lot of travelling, relocating, and being at campuses far away from the university often impacts on their support networks.’
These issues led AMSA to work together with Orygen to create a proposal for a National University Mental Health Framework (the framework), which was recently granted funding from the Federal Government.
Ms Farrell is very pleased about the funding and hopes it represents the first step in what she sees as a larger project.
‘[University student mental health] has been an underfunded and under-talked-about area for a long time now, and to see the Government step up with investment and show they’re prepared to support the sector in taking this issue seriously is an incredible sign,’ she said.
The framework has been designed to bring together all relevant stakeholders in order to effectively address the problem of student mental health.
‘We know that addressing university student mental health needs students at the table involved in making the plan. We also know we need universities and the mental health sector at the table,’ Ms Farrell said.
‘The goal is that this framework will, through extensive consultation, help gather what we currently know about best practice, look at the initiatives that are really working and producing good outcomes in this space, and then produce a guide with clear actionable outcomes.’
Orygen’s report showed many students find it difficult to disclose their mental health struggles to university staff and lack knowledge about what resources were available to them. One told researchers, ‘Lecturers and tutors act as though the issues don’t exist for uni students. My undergrad was in psych and even then the tutors acted as though mental ill-health was for “other people”.’
Ms Farrell believes that while many universities are well-intentioned, they may be lacking comprehensive guidance. The framework is designed to fill this gap, while also providing a useful – and adaptable – blueprint for moving towards the future.
‘Our hope is … to produce a document that very simply and clearly lays out the expectations and standardises them, so we know that an appropriate, supportive base level of care and support is afforded to all university students,’ Ms Farrell said.
‘And also create a document that is actionable and we can track its progress. So not a stagnant document that’s produced once and sits on the shelf, but one that is referred to and lives and grows and changes as we make progress in the area.
‘Certainly we hope that it is the first step, not the last step, but we are excited to see it play out.’

AMSA medical students mental health

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