Mental health among uni students hits new lows

By Emily Cosenza, Alyssa McKellar and Emma Warren.

A study by mental health foundation, Headspace, has found that around 80 per cent of students feel anxiety, and a lack of energy and motivation.

The study, which asked students about the previous 12 months, also found that one in three students thought about self-harm or suicide and one in two experienced panic.

21-year-old Alyce, who was diagnosed with depression while completing her Honours degree, said she was not surprised by the findings.

“In the final year of my degree, I was really apathetic towards my studies,” Alyce said.

“One day I was driving to uni and I just started to have a breakdown. So I pulled over, took a minute, then drove home.

“Students who battle with mental health issues deal with the increased pressure of trying to find help.

“It adds so much pressure because you can feel that something is wrong, but you’re too stressed or busy, so it just manifests until you self-destruct.

“Depression is a bitch, because some days I feel really normal – not happy exactly – but when it hits, most the time without any trigger, it makes you feel awful.”

“Any hope of studying that day has gone out the window because I have to slowly pick myself back up.”

Counsellor at the University of South Australia, Nikki Kenney, said an internal university study found one in four students struggled with their mental health.

She said a lack of government funding could be a cause behind the alarmingly high figures.

“Money always has and always is going to be a large problem,” Ms Kenney said.

“The government is continually cutting funds to go towards our services, in all universities and schools across the country.

“This is a big-person political problem that is definitely causing us grief and preventing us from providing the absolute best services possible.”

Without enough funding, the University of South Australia (UniSA) cannot provide extensive counselling services to their students.

“There is only the equivalent of 7.6 full-time counsellors across UniSA’s four campuses,” Ms Kenney said.

“That’s 7.6 people to look over 30,000 students. It’s just impractical.”

The University of Adelaide has six counsellors, and Flinders University has seven.

With the Federal Government planning to cut $2.8 billion from university funding in the 2017 Budget, there are concerns that adequate counselling support for students will further diminish.

UniSA’s counselling services are free, but have a month-long wait for an appointment.

“It is concerning to us that there is that long of a wait,” Ms Kenney said.

“However, if a student is in urgent need to see a counsellor, we are more than happy to squeeze them in where we can or keep our doors open later than usual.”

Some students were unaware there was a counselling service.

“The fact I went to uni for four years and never knew there was a counselling service says a lot,” one student said.

Mitchell, 27, also suffered from depression throughout his studies.

“It began in high school, but increased while in tertiary education,” he said.

“It wasn’t until university when I had four exams every six months, and I was working every night to pay for my social life, bills and my car, that it started becoming too much.”

Both Mitchell and Alyce agreed that, while mental health was more openly discussed, a stigma was still associated.

“It’s not something I openly talk about,” Mitchell said.

“Very few friends or even family members know of my battle with depression.

“I don’t want people thinking they need to be careful around me, worry about me, or even pity me.

“I just want people to think and treat me as normal, which is why I think people keep it so private.”

Psychologist Enza Belperio said the pressure to achieve high marks, combined with financial pressures, social and family factors, contributed to poor mental health among university students.

“In balancing all these things, it doesn’t surprise me that uni students who are continually dealing with a variety of stresses are vulnerable to developing a mental disorder,” Belperio said.

“Especially if they haven’t got the skills, coping mechanisms or some sort of knowledge to how they gained that.”

Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, also released a report saying many students did not disclose or seek support for mental health issues.

The report said Australia was falling behind in comparison to the UK, USA and Canada in providing mental health promotion, early intervention and support to young people.

Carly Sare, from mental health organisation Batyr, said there was a need for a national discussion on mental health.

“There’s a lack of consensus nationally with universities,” Ms Sare said.

“In other areas to do with wellbeing, for example, the ‘Respect Now Always’ campaign and sexual harassment, there’s a collaborative movement and the Government is getting involved.

“But that’s still non-existent with mental health.

“The most important thing for the mental wellbeing of students is connection.

“If we’re connected to each other, we know just how therapeutic that is to share with someone else.

“It’s having support as well as realising that it’s not abnormal and we’re all going through these things.

“Just even having that shared experience can kind of validate that experience that shows that you’re not alone with this.

“What changes stigma is people are having these conversations.

“We need to be able to start having conversations that normalises it.”

Batyr have recently partnered with UniSA as part of the University’s Wellbeing plan, which aims to build a safer, more connected community.

“Within Batyr, there’s two main goals: to raise awareness around mental health and to smash the stigma,” Ms Sare said.

“We show the services that can help you within university, on campus and within the broader community, and we encourage people to reach out to them.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a university culture where it’s okay to not be okay.”

Students can seek help from sources such as Lifeline, which has support available 24/7.

Volunteer counsellor at Lifeline, Costanza Furlan, said many students do seek help from their services.

“When it’s exam time or just before holidays when results come out, there is an influx of calls because of high stress levels,” Furlan said.

“Our calls always end with ‘you can call this number 24/7’ so people know that we are always available to help them.”

If you are struggling and need help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.

Alternatively, see your GP, or head to Batyr on Facebook for information on how you can prioritise your mental health while studying.

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