University: the golden years of flexible contact hours, weekly parties and meeting more new people than you can count. Some call it the best years of our life. But for others, the pressure of academic demands—coupled with the numerous stressors of daily living—can cause their time at university to be fraught with psychological distress.
Nearly 1 in 5 Australians will experience a mental disorder in their lives, with anxiety and depression being the most common. However, amongst young adults aged 16-25, this number increases to 1 in 4. Even more alarmingly, university students in this age group are more likely than non-students to suffer from a mental illness.
Yet, even with statistics such as these, the wellbeing of young adults is often overlooked. Public health measures in Australia focus heavily on child and adolescent mental health issues, with little to no effective strategies in place within the tertiary education system. Gone are the pastoral care networks of homeroom teachers, house mentors and mental health awareness campaigns; instead, support networks at universities consist of tutors that change every semester, lecturers that teach classes of up to 300 nameless faces and an on-campus counseling service that is insufficiently promoted and largely self-referred.
But why is this the case? The nature and, indeed, associated culture of university is a veritable breeding ground for precipitating factors to mental illness.
“It’s easy to become overwhelmed,” says Georgia*, a first-year medical student at Clayton. “Exams and assignments pile up one after the other and it’s like I never catch a break. And I’m not going to lie, it’s hard. I fell a week behind, and then two, and stayed like that for the rest of last semester. I was so upset because it’s not that I’m not getting great marks like I did in high school, but that I’m struggling to pass at all. I wish there was a way to measure stress… mine would be through the roof.”
Luke*, a third-year Engineering student, offers a different point of view. “It’s a whole other culture here. I lived at Farrer [one of the residential halls] in my second year and was thrown into this world of drinking, drugs, relationships—you name it. Not everyone gets into it, but for those of us that do, things can get pretty crazy. They can get out of control. I was in a headspace that was hard to get out of.”
Financial issues also feature prominently in university life, with many students working part-time jobs whilst studying in order to pay rent, tuition, or both. Others feel daunted by the prospect of seeking employment after graduation, especially in the current economic climate.
However, for students like Georgia, simply keeping on top of coursework and exams is hard enough, let alone looking after one’s health and mental wellbeing. Countless surveys and independent studies have reflected a student population that not only suffers from mild to moderate levels of stress, but also feels isolated within the university framework. This is only amplified by the inevitable changes to diet, sleep and exercise that accompany long contact hours or swotvac.
Dr. Helen Stallman, a clinical psychologist from the University of Queensland, reiterates the idea that, at some stage in their university lives, many students are unable to cope academically or socially. “A really high proportion of university students are reporting higher levels of psychological distress and significantly more than that in the general population,” she told the ABC. “We had 19% of students reporting [very high levels of distress, whereas] in the general population that’s only 3% of people.”
If left untreated, mental illness can greatly reduce a person’s overall quality of life. An underlying unhappiness and decreased enjoyment of daily activities can manifest in family conflicts, social isolation, relationship difficulties, substance abuse, financial issues, stress, poor academic performances from missed lectures and tutorials and, in extreme cases, suicide.
Yet, the university environment itself can only be attributed to the high prevalence of mental illness to a certain degree. Short of restructuring the entire tertiary framework, very little can be changed. The fault lies with the institution’s seeming inability to support the affected population; whilst some support services do exist, they are underutilized by those who need it most, due to a lack of promotion within their respective campuses.
Monash has established a Health and Wellbeing Hub at each of its campuses in Australia. They provide free and confidential appointments with a counselor for both staff and students, with after-hours emergency contacts available. There are also several free classes on offer, teaching techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and progressive relaxation.
Additionally, the Monash website offers self-help resources, including advice for adjusting to university, fostering independent learning skills, battling motivation and procrastination, improving memory and concentration, managing stress, improving exam performance, nurturing general wellbeing and dealing with crises.
To maximize academic outcomes, there is also a free five-week SMART program available at the Berwick, Caulfield and Clayton campuses.
But is merely listing these services going to be enough? No. Universities nation-wide, not only Monash, need to reinforce their emphasis on the importance of the mental health of students. It has always been, and will always continue to be, an unavoidable and highly important issue—one concerning more than just low attendance and failed units. The wellbeing, careers and even lives of students are at stake.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality purposes