Health

With university students suffering academic pressures, career insecurity, mounting debt and social isolation, what is being done to protect their mental health? By Linda Moon.

Uni students’ mental health

Swinburne University’s Professor Susan Rossell.
Credit: Supplied

With the support and guidance of family and teachers Jaymee Wolff studied hard and achieved her goal – to get into a double degree in outdoor recreation and teaching. But the sensitive straight-A student and former sports captain from Victoria found the social isolation and academic pressure of university life crippling. Midway through her final year she made an attempt on her life. She was 21.

Now 28, Wolff is able to reflect on that dark period. “It’s such a huge jump to go from high school to uni,” she says. “From being told what to do, when and how to do it, to then the tutor or lecturer doesn’t even know your name; you don’t even know the person you’re sitting next to.”

As assignments started to mount up, Wolff fell behind, which caused her shame and embarrassment. She had some friends at uni, but it was easy to slip through the cracks. When she started skipping classes, no one checked in.

While Wolff had other problems – with a boyfriend and her health – it was a failed subject that tipped her over the edge. After discussing her situation with a head teacher, Wolff, who also worked three jobs at the time, was allowed to resubmit a key assignment. No one referred her for counselling. It was a few weeks later that she tried to take her life.

Now a project manager, Wolff has never applied for a job in her field of study. She blames bad memories of her time at uni, the suicide attempt and her shattered confidence.

But her mental health battles led the recently married Wolff to become a valued speaker for the mental health charity Mindfull Aus. Her advice to struggling students is to seek help. She urges teachers to “fight for those … who fall through the cracks”.

“Although I passed in the end,” Wolff says, “it literally almost cost me my life.”

Student surveys show Wolff’s struggles are far from an anomaly. Increasingly, higher education is a toxic experience. A 2018 study by online learning advice service Studiosity found, for example, that 79 per cent of students sometimes study all night to keep up, while an online study of 2320 social work students revealed that many can’t afford food or basic necessities. The non-profit youth mental health organisation Headspace discovered that of the 2600 TAFE and university students they surveyed in 2017, 35 per cent had been driven to thoughts of self-harm or suicide during the previous 12 months. Those already disadvantaged – by disability or through low socioeconomic, international, rural, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds – are most at risk of mental health issues.

Vivienne Browne, associate director in government relations and policy at the youth mental health organisation Orygen, says financial pressures are a huge factor, driven by significant HECS debts and job competition. More people than ever are undertaking tertiary education and postgraduate certification, she says. The high cost of living in capital cities feeds into financial stress.

“You’re often trying to balance full-time study with a full-time workload as well [and] the pathways into employment are getting more fragile,” Browne says.

The number of undergraduates in full-time work dropped from 85.2 per cent in 2008 to 72.2 per cent in 2018 in the Australian government’s 2019 Graduate Outcomes Survey. Of those working full-time, almost 30 per cent said their job didn’t use their skills or education.

“The evidence suggests tertiary students are experiencing greater levels of stress than ever,” Browne says. She adds that in the Australian government’s 2019 Student Experience Survey, 46 per cent of higher education students thinking of dropping out of their course blamed their health and stress levels. “That’s pretty much gone up every year. Back in 2013 it was only 26 per cent. In six years we’ve seen a doubling of the percentage of students thinking of leaving their course early because of mental distress or health reasons.”

Browne says university wellbeing services are struggling to meet this increased demand. “Their services are not designed to provide treatment for serious mental health issues and they feel it’s not their purpose. They’re trying to refer them out to the mental health sector and it’s flooded at the moment.”

It’s this lack of accountability that means students like Wolff can fall through the cracks.

The team at Orygen are currently developing a national mental health framework that grapples with the question of who is responsible. “When we wrote ‘Under the Radar’ [in 2017], there was no real evident policy response to mental health and wellbeing in tertiary education,” Browne says. “This framework [to be presented to government in October] will fill a gap. The mental health sector needs to be able to reach into universities and deliver programs and supports on campus. The responsibility of the universities is to mitigate any unnecessary stresses of students, play a role in reducing stigma around mental health and build literacy on campus with students and staff. They definitely are already in the space of providing students with at least a first point of call.”

She says universities can play a role in managing mental health by training relevant staff to recognise signs of stress or distress in students and by building healthy, safe and supportive communities. Curriculum design can additionally support student wellbeing.

It’s an area universities fall short on. Fifty-one per cent of 1000 Australian students surveyed by Studiosity considered quitting their degrees because of the struggle of studying alone.

Now the trend towards distance education prompted by Covid-19 shutdowns is likely to exacerbate such problems. Studiosity’s 2019 survey found students felt most isolated off campus. And, when asked what was missing from their university experience, their wish lists centred on improved contact and support: specifically, more feedback on their work from teachers and free 24/7 support services online.

Professor Susan Rossell, senior National Health and Medical Research Council research fellow and professor of cognitive neuropsychiatry at Swinburne University, Melbourne, has been monitoring the mental health of young Australians through the coronavirus crisis. She found anxiety and depression in 18- to 24-year-olds was four times higher in April than data from the previous few years. “These curfews are making a massive difference to them,” she says. “This is the main time of anyone’s life that they’re supposed to be socialising and flirting, having sex and finding their feet.”

Further feedback from the survey shows young people are worried about their education and future, she says. “They’re concerned they’re not going to finish their education; that the degrees they’re going to get are going to be substandard because they’ve not been on campus. They’re concerned that they might have to stay in the education system for longer and it’s going to cost them more money; that even if they do finish their degree they’re not going to get employment afterwards.” While distance education works successfully for certain individuals, it’s not what they signed up for, says Rossell.

But what devastated the professor most was another finding. The team’s July survey found 44 per cent of the 18- to 24-year-olds had suicidal ideation. “It’s around 20 per cent in the rest of the population, so it’s over double. It really shocked us. My statistician called me in tears.”

One thing that makes youth more vulnerable is that their brains are still maturing the capacity to process emotions and problem solve. “Our brain isn’t mature till we’re about 24 or 25,” she says. “They don’t have the same problem-solving capacity as mature adults. And they have been thrown one of the biggest curve balls in a lifetime.”

While Rossell awaits a response from the government to her frightening statistics, Jaymee Wolff ponders what her university life would have been like with better mental health support.

“I do wonder what if,” she admits. “But I definitely don’t have regret. My life has turned out really beautifully. I’m very grateful for that.”

Lifeline 13 11 14; Beyond Blue Covid-19 helpline 1800 512 348

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "Failing uni students".

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Linda Moon is a freelance health and lifestyle writer. She is a qualified naturopath.