R U OK?: How universities are getting students talking about mental health

Universities and not-for-profit services are collaborating to end the youth mental health stigma (Image source: University of South Australia)

By Josh Brine | @Josh_Brine

With assignments coming in thick and fast, and with leisure time becoming harder to find, the next few months can be very difficult for students.

But for many young people, the stress of this time of year may be a sign of something more serious.

According to a 2017 report by Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, one out of four people aged between 15 and 24 will experience poor mental health in any given year.

The issue of mental health within Australian universities is complicated, with many factors playing a role.

Dan Schmidt is the Community and Stakeholder Liaison Officer and Promotion and Engagement Officer for headspace Adelaide, an organisation providing tailored mental health support to people under 25.

“Mental health is such a big issue for young people because it is a period in our life where we actually have a lot going on,” Mr Schmidt said.

“We’re sort of finding ourselves and what our purpose in life is.

“When we couple that with studies, particularly university studies and the stresses that come with that, it can ultimately lead to mental health issues.”

Nadia Rajic, manager of Student Wellbeing at the University of South Australia, said university students often carry more stress than non-students of the same age.

Ms Rajic said potential stressors for students include choosing a career, having to study, and dealing with financial difficulties.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness among university students in Australia, many young people are not comfortable reaching out for support when they need it.

Tanya Clifton has worked in mental health for over two decades in regional New South Wales, including working with carers and families to improve mental health, drug and alcohol (MHDA) services.

Ms Clifton said people with mental health issues often struggle to ask for help because of a variety of reasons, including feelings of guilt or shame, a lack of acceptance about the impact the mental illness may be having, and a cultural stigma surrounding mental health.

“The conversations about mental health must become part of everyday conversation amongst your school and workmates,” Ms Clifton said.

Because of this, many mental health initiatives are now focused on holistic approaches, aimed at generating mental health awareness amongst entire communities, rather than just those in crisis.

One of these initiatives is R U OK? Day, a national day of action on September 12 which encourages Australians to learn how to recognise when others in their community may be struggling with life, and to have meaningful conversations surrounding mental health.

“We know the majority of Australians believe talking to someone who’s struggling can make a difference,” R U OK? CEO Katherine Newton said in a media release.

“If someone reaches out to you and starts talking about the fact that they’re struggling, it’s really important that you understand that you could save a life,” Ms Rajic said.

“Hopefully, they feel supported and they feel safe enough to take that next step.”

Ms Rajic said although there is still a long way to go, initiatives that encourage open conversations around mental health like R U OK? are having a positive impact.

“It is actually having an effect overall, there is a better awareness around stigma now—and less stigma—but there’s still that work to do.”

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Organisations like R U OK? encourage young people to talk about their mental health (Image source: R U OK?).

But R U OK? Day is far from the only initiative focused on challenging the stigma surrounding mental health for young people.

Organisations such as Headspace and Batyr provide support services and organise events targeted specifically at young people under the age of 25.

South Australian universities are also working towards improving mental health on their campuses.

Since establishing a Wellbeing Steering Group in 2016, the University of South Australia has launched several initiatives aimed at assisting the mental wellbeing of students.

This includes a partnership with Batyr—who have helped to organise events and programs including this year’s R U OK? Day and Unitopia events—and providing mental health first aid training courses for student leaders.

“We started looking at that more holistic view of wellbeing,” Ms Rajic said.

“Instead of waiting for students to experience a problem or have a crisis and then saying you can go to counselling, it’s really about saying what can we do as a University to promote good health and wellbeing amongst our students.”

Flinders University has partnered with the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute’s (SAHMRI) Wellbeing and Resilience Centre to publicise health and wellbeing interventions.

Flinders also partner with BUPA to deliver programs focused on developing healthier bodies, minds, culture and places.

Finally, the University of Adelaide created UniThrive, a website that uses positive psychology to assist students in improving resilience and overcoming problems.

“The universities in SA and in the capitals are doing a fine job,” Mr Schmidt said.

Ms Clifton said while universities are trying their best to improve the mental health of students, it is a very complex issue with no simple solution.

“There is no one initiative that is ever going to work,” Ms Clifton said.

“Every community needs to come together and develop a response that will work within their community.”

There are also several strategies students can employ to help maintain their mental health.

“Getting enough sleep, moving enough, and eating a generally decent diet—which I know isn’t always easy at university—is key to maintaining your mental health,” Mr Schmidt said.

“Find time for yourself, do things you enjoy, even if it’s just half an hour a day.”

“Just going in to see a counsellor if you’re really struggling … in three or four sessions you can get a lot of information around what might work for you,” Ms Rajic said.

“One in four people are going to have this, so don’t feel like you are the only one.”

 

UniSA students can find self-help resources here, and can make an appointment to meet with a counsellor here.

People aged 12-25 seeking help for a mental health problem should contact headspace at www.headspace.org.au.

If you or someone you know needs urgent help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

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