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Uncapping the mental health problem in universities

By Patrick O'Keeffe - posted Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Gillard government is expecting the number of government funded undergraduate places to exceed 500,000 in 2012. This follows the removal of the cap on tertiary places offered by Australian universities, which has seen enrolments at institutions such as the University of Sydney increase by 17 per cent this year.

Projected skills shortages have caused the Australian Government to increase university participation rates, particularly among students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans, triumphantly declared that "By removing restrictions…the Gillard government's reforms have opened the doors of universities to more students than ever before."

However, Minister Evans will be less willing to refer to the results of a number of studies, which have shown that the levels of psychological distress among university students is significantly higher than for their community peers. In a study of 6,479 students, Dr Helen Stallman of the University of Queensland found 19.2 per cent of students were found to be experiencing serious mental illness, while 84 per cent of students reported heightened distress levels, as opposed to 29 per cent of their age-matched peers. A similar study conducted by Dr Catherine Leahy of the University of Adelaide found 48 per cent of students to be experiencing psychological distress.


Factors which place students at greater risk of mental health problems include age and gender, however students experiencing financial difficulties are at much higher risk of experiencing psychological distress. Furthermore, Cvetkovski, Reavley and Jorm, from the Orygen Youth Health Research Centrecontend that students working in paid employment were at risk of experiencing high psychological distress. The flow on effect is that students' ability to reach their academic potential is compromised.

While the focus of Minister Evans comments has centred on equality of access to higher education, there has been little discussion on the implications for mental health among students. The issue would seem to have a simple fix. More students enrolling, would mean more money for the university, hence more money to employ more counsellors. However, simply employing more counsellors on campus may not necessarily address the issue.

Very few students who are experiencing psychological distress actually seek assistance. A study conducted in the UK found that only 10 per cent of students experiencing difficulty with mental illness sought help. This finding is supported by similar figures arising from Australian studies, such as those conducted by Rickwood, Wilson, Deane and Ciarrachi and Rickwood and Braithwaite. The barriers which prevent students from seeking help need to be addressed.

Barriers which affect help seeking behaviour are often listed by students as a "lack of time", however there is significant evidence suggesting that the stigmatisation of mental health is also an influencing factor. According to a study conducted by Associate Professor Jenny Martin of RMIT University, students "were particularly concerned that a lack of understanding from staff and students would result in stigma and negative discrimination leading to restricted opportunities at university and in future employment."

For the past 18 months, the RMIT Student Union has been running a drop in centre called 'Compass', which staff member Thea Lamaro describes as a "casual, friendly and welcoming environment for students to discuss any issues that they may have." Compass is staffed by one full time social worker and student volunteers, who have proven to be effective in helping students with "general pressures of life stuff." According to Lamaro, "There's a real sense that the students want to speak to someone who would understand them and their problems, without being too judgmental." As well as the provision of individual support, Lamaro states that Compass "tries to make health and welfare issues fun," through the running of awareness raising events on campus. Lamaro mentions that many students visit Compass for assistance with financial matters, anxiety and stress, while "a lot of people just want to come in and offload." For students experiencing severe psychological distress, Lamaro will make a referral to the RMIT counselling service. Many students initially show some reluctance towards taking this step, however this reluctance is often overcome after a couple of visits to Compass.

The idea of a drop in centre to encourage help seeking behaviour is not necessarily new. Drop in centres, telephone hot-lines, and counseling provided by young people were cited in 1994 by Rickwood and Braithwaite as being effective approaches which can improve the likelihood of young people seeking help. According to Rickwood and Braithwaite these approaches may help "to integrate adolescents' preference for informal help into professional care".This can be said for RMIT, where professional support is being provided to students, yet under the guise of a relaxed, easy going environment which Lamaro considers as being critical to the success of Compass.


There is little doubt that increasing access of young people to tertiary education is a good thing. However, a significant increase in student populations will ensure greater numbers of students experiencing mental health problems, many of whom will avoid seeking the appropriate help. With the proportion of students experiencing mental health problems so great, the level of on campus support provided to students requires significant attention. Furthermore, efforts are required to ensure that mental health services are attractive to students.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Keeffe is a Melbourne writer who has previously contributed to Dissent, CorpWatch, Multinational Monitor, New Matilda and The Centre for Research on Globalisation. Patrick writes for the blog Off Corporate Coast.

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