Dr Claire Kelly from Mental Health First Aid Australia – a not-for-profit organisation that trains people to assist someone they’re concerned about – says there are many unique stressors that can lead to the development of mental health issues in students. “We do have a fairly substantial research body in Australia showing that tertiary students have a higher rate of depression, anxiety and stress broadly than the rest of the population of the same sort of age,” she says, citing financial worries as a significant contributor.
“As well as that, there’s an enormous amount of pressure in terms of making deadlines and doing a good enough job [with course work]. And depending on the university degree, they can be extremely competitive and with a huge amount of contact hours. Law students and medical students are two groups that have particularly high amounts of depression and anxiety, and in some cases higher rates of suicide. In the TAFE sector, apprenticeships carry, unfortunately, a huge risk of being bullied by people in the broader organisation as well as very high rates of substance problems, both of which do compound the risk of longer-term problems.”
The pressure on international students can be immense.
“We don’t have a lot of really good evidence around international students, but many people who are supporting international students are reporting high rates of stress, depression, anxiety, suicide ideation and self-injury,” Dr Kelly says. “Often they are coming into the country with enormous amounts of pressure from home, sometimes where families have put themselves into enormous amounts of debt to send them to Australia.”
Mental Health First Aid Australia CEO Dr Shona Bass says being alert to mental health issues in students can make a difference.
“These young people are the next generation of a healthy, happy, productive Australia. It’s important that those around them have the knowledge, and even more importantly, the skills to assist when symptoms appear,” she says.
Indications of mental health issues include issues with concentration, becoming easily irritated for no reason and not wanting to be involved in things they would normally enjoy.
“If you’re seeing major changes in thinking, feeling and behaviour that are contributing to a worsening of functioning, making it difficult for students to do what they need to do to participate in class, to submit homework on time, to show up – and that don’t go away quickly… those are the things to look for,” Dr Kelly says.
If you notice a student is displaying indicators of a mental health issue, act without delay.
“Early intervention is the most important thing,” Dr Kelly says. “You don’t wait and see if things get better. If you’ve noticed that there’s a change that’s lasted a couple of weeks, it’s worth having a conversation.”
Talking to the student about how they’re feeling – rather than their progress in class – is her advice.
“It’s about going in non-judgmentally with an open ear and being able to say ‘hey, I care, I’ve noticed there has been some changes and I’m wondering if you’d like some support or if you’d like me to help you find someone you can talk to’. You certainly don’t want to be taking on any kind of counselling or diagnostic role,” she says.
She cautions against trying to over-empathise.
“We don’t want to say things like, ‘I know exactly how you feel’ or automatically launching into a story about your brother-in-law or ‘my depression when I was your age’, or anything like that. Just listening and saying, ‘wow, that must be really tough’. Just being empathic and being prepared to listen and being prepared to meet the person exactly where they are without judging them.
“Particularly where there’s substance use it’s very easy for us to go, ‘oh well, they brought it on themselves if they’re using drugs or alcohol’ but we’ve got to remember that even when it comes to those very externalising behavioural problems such as overuse of substances that they’re trying to cope with something.”
Dr Kelly also recommends referring students (and educators) to Beyond Blue’s downloadable PDF ‘A guide to what works for depression in young people’, which is full of practical, evidence-based strategies to boost mental wellbeing, such as exercising and improving sleep hygiene.
Beyond Blue. A guide to what works for depression in young people [Online] [Accessed Apr2019] Available from: www.beyondblue.org.au
Headspace. An overview on mental health [Online] [Accessed Apr 2019] Available from: www.headspace.org.au
Orygen. The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health [Online] [Accessed Apr2019] Available from: www.orygen.org.au