From where I sit - Don't skirt around mental illness

March 5, 2009

In an ideal world, tertiary educators would be able to teach innovative courses, updated every year by the latest research in their field. Students would read widely, be well adjusted and eager to learn and would turn in every assignment on time.

There are many reasons why the reality does not live up to the ideal. We usually cite budget and time constraints, and blame students' lack of motivation on parents making them do courses they do not like, and so on.

What we often forget is the silent, sometimes hard-to-detect problem that prohibits up to one in five of us, students and teachers alike, from doing our best in any given year. That problem is mental illness.

Latest Australian government figures indicate that 19 per cent of people living in the state of Victoria have experienced some form of mental illness in the past 12 months. The figures are likely to be similar throughout Australia and in other Western countries.

So look around: if you teach 100 students a year, it is statistically probable that 19 of them will be affected. Look at your colleagues, too: if there are 50 lecturers in your faculty, nine or ten of them could have been mentally ill or are suffering right now.

Of course, the figures refer to all types of mental illness, from minor and fleeting problems to major and chronic ones.

Despite the best attempts of governments and health authorities to destigmatise mental illness, in many cases it is still not treated with the same seriousness as purely physical conditions.

I have talked to a student in tears because another lecturer had accused him of being a malingerer, despite being registered for his mental condition with the institution's disability unit.

Extraordinary as this seems, it still happens.

Tutors often find themselves in the role of quasi-counsellor these days, despite universities mostly having good referral systems to offer students psychological help. But the fact is that a tutor is often the first person students talk to about their psychological problems.

At a recent meeting, a group of educators discussed ways of identifying at-risk students. Falling asleep in class, scratches on the arms (evidence of self-harm), poor attendance and the failure to meet deadlines are all telltale signs of mental illness, we heard.

Some members of staff were startled when a counsellor told them that during a private consultation, it was better to ask a student directly whether he or she was contemplating suicide, rather than skirting around the issue.

"But what if they lie and say they're not?" I asked.

The counsellor replied that this usually did not happen and that people were remarkably honest when asked directly.

Some staff members said they would not feel comfortable asking a student this question - they were afraid it might do more damage. But the counsellor assured us that such a query would not "tip someone over the edge".

Regardless, the bottom line is that if students seem to be having psychological problems, they should be encouraged to seek help immediately. Perhaps the teacher should go with them to make an appointment.

I always believe students who blame mental-health issues for poor academic progress - a few might be lying, of course, but I think that in most cases, it is a genuine cry for help and understanding.

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