Concerns about the state of university students’ mental health slowly have been filtering out, but the scale and neglect of the issue has remained hidden through a lack of data and transparency. We could be confident with 60 per cent of tertiary students falling into the peak age of risk for mental disorder, that at least a quarter will experience mental ill health of sufficient severity to warrant a need for care.
However, the situation may be even more serious. A recent survey of tertiary students delivered alarming results: of the 2600 students aged 17 to 25 who voluntarily participated, two-thirds manifested peak levels of distress and rated their mental health as poor.
University should be an enriching experience and an exciting time of transition to independence and a productive life. Yet rapidly growing numbers of students are burdened by struggles with academic and financial pressures, isolation, loneliness and poor self-care.
These potent risk factors represent the ingredients for mental ill health, at a transition stage when they are most vulnerable. The situation is getting worse and new threats loom in next week’s federal budget.
University counselling and disability services have reported increasing numbers of students seeking support, many with complex and serious presentations, but the bulk of program funding is provided for those with physical disabilities. Research indicates that students who develop mental ill-health are likelier to exit courses early, having a detrimental impact on their educational and career pathways, as well as their longer-term mental and physical health outcomes.
One in three respondents in the University Experience Survey who were considering leaving their course said it was because of health or stress-related reasons. Some universities here and overseas are ahead of the curve in recognising these widespread yet hidden needs. However in Australia this is a piecemeal effort highly dependent on local university leadership and grassroots efforts.
– Patrick McGorry & Ian Marshman