Australia forced to play catch-up on student mental health

Government mandate could force universities to address issue more strategically

July 21, 2018
Person's head, cogged wheels, brain, mental health

Australian universities are finally being pushed into serious action over student mental health, amid warnings that the sector is “lagging behind” its competitors.

A report by the Higher Education Standards Panel, Improving retention, completion and success in higher education, included a call for all universities to produce institution-wide mental health strategies. Education minister Simon Birmingham, who released the report last month, instructed universities and agencies to act on all of its 18 recommendations.

Student mental health advocate Benjamin Veness said this was good news, but that the devil lay in the detail. “To what standard are universities expected to develop the mental health strategy? Who’s going to be responsible for checking and evaluating its implementation? What timelines are being put around this?” he asked.

These details are still to be determined, with an implementation plan for the 18 recommendations not due until the end of the year. Dr Veness said the danger was that “institutions will pay lip service to it, and it will become another document that doesn’t lead to meaningful change. But what buoys me is that some institutions, independently of the minister’s mandate, are taking the issue seriously.”

A trainee psychiatrist and former president of the Australian Medical Students’ Association, Dr Veness became aware of widespread student mental health problems as an elected member of the University of Sydney senate. His interest culminated in a 2013 Churchill fellowship to investigate the issue, and a 2016 report on prevention and early intervention strategies.

His report offered 39 recommendations arranged around seven themes. The first was that a “tone at the top” must commit each university to improving its students’ mental health and well-being.

While Australian universities routinely offer mental health services, only a smattering have institution-wide strategies. Dr Veness said student mental health was a “grumbling issue” that the sector had long neglected.

But a confluence of factors – financial pressures, snowballing enrolments, an influx of international students, growth of online education and a burgeoning recognition of mental illness as a broader societal problem – had brought it to the fore.

“In the longer term, I can’t see how universities are going to avoid the issue. More and more students are coming to the attention of staff or counselling services and institutions are struggling to respond,” he said.

“Universities will have to find a way of shifting to an early intervention and prevention approach with an appropriate triage service that links with community mental health supports. Until that happens they’re going to keep butting their heads against the issue – in some cases, major problems may force a change.”

Those problems could be tragedies like recent suicides by international students in Canberra and medical students in Hobart. In the UK, the suicides of 10 University of Bristol students have put the spotlight on mental health across the entire student population.

An alternative to that sort of public relations nightmare scenario is that “a vice-chancellor or another senior person gets it, and decides that proactively addressing the issue should be a defining feature of their term”, Dr Veness said.

While James Cook University in northern Queensland has established an Australasian Mental Health and Higher Education Conference, the first forum of its type in Australia, Dr Veness said Australia’s approach to the issue was “nascent”.

Unlike Canada, the US and the UK, Australia has no leading not-for-profit organisation taking on student mental health as a core issue, he said. “We’re really lagging behind.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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