Exploring the uncharted landscapes of the mind: Mental Health in Higher Education in Australia
By Konrad Peszynski
Amidst the academic rigour and innovation in Australian higher education lies the pivotal yet often overlooked challenge of addressing mental health, a cornerstone for staff and student success and wellbeing. The importance of mental health has emerged as a paramount concern within the higher education sector, and nowhere more so than in Australia.
The mental health of our students.
Higher education is a critical period in a young person's life, often characterised by stress, transition, and personal growth. Throw into this the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a significant impact on mental health worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the pandemic has “triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide” (World Health Organisation, 2022). Much as I hate to say it, the number of strict lockdowns in Melbourne throughout 2020 and 2021 resulted in an increase in levels of anxiety, depression, and distress (Daly, 2021). Many people experienced additional stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, and loneliness during the pandemic. Attempted suicide rates among Victorian teenagers have skyrocketed by 184% in the first half of 2021 alone (Piovesan, 2021). Nearly one in ten Victorians seriously considered suicide during the height of the lockdown restrictions in 2020.
I will let that sit with you for a moment.
Sometimes it is challenging to read these types of statistics. However, this reflects the reality of the situation and can help us understand the scope of the issue at hand. Students' mental wellbeing significantly influences their academic achievement, physical health, relationships, and overall quality of life. Hence, addressing mental health issues in higher education is a subject of vital importance.
In August 2021, during the sixth state-wide lockdown, RMIT University conducted a Mental Wellbeing Survey in conjunction with the University of South Australia. The survey asked RMIT students in Australia to share their views – anonymously – on how they were feeling and what they thought of how RMIT supports mental wellbeing. Results from the survey indicated (RMIT University, 2022):
- “Mental wellbeing was low – around 30% of students reported low wellbeing, with social wellbeing (sense of belonging, connection, and contribution etc) being of greatest concern exhaustion was high;
- About 50% of students thought RMIT was doing a good job in protecting their mental wellbeing, but about 50% felt we could do better; &
- Students with certain lived experiences (LGBTIQ+, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, disability, culturally and linguistically diverse) were at increased risk and reported lower wellbeing than the average student.”
Suffice it to say that academic stress is a prominent issue, given that universities are high-pressure environments where students often feel intense competition and high expectations. Many students are living away from home for the first time, grappling with a new sense of independence, and navigating complex social relationships. All these factors can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and depression, making the university experience incredibly challenging for some students.
Financial stress is another critical issue affecting students' mental health. As in many countries, higher education in Australia is a significant financial investment. The financial strain of tuition fees, coupled with living and the resulting financial stress, is undoubtedly leaving its mark on students' mental wellbeing. In tandem with academic workload and social adjustments, this economic pressure is creating an escalating mental health crisis in higher education. Furthermore, the pressure to balance academic responsibilities with part-time work to support themselves can lead to burnout, leaving little time for relaxation or self-care. In Australia, as the cost-of-living rises, the need for robust, accessible mental health support within our institutions is not just desirable but essential for our student population's health and success.
Addressing mental health issues in education is critical for several reasons (Collegenp.com, 2023):
- “Students with good mental health are more likely to succeed academically. They are better able to concentrate, retain information, and perform well on assessments.
- Addressing mental health in education helps reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
- Addressing mental health in education is critical to promoting mental wellness.”
Often overlooked is the wellbeing of university staff.
The mental health and wellbeing of university staff is an equally important topic, though often less discussed than students' mental health. It is a well-established fact that the mental wellbeing of educators is pivotal to the effective functioning of educational institutions, including universities.
University staff, including academic and non-academic members, play critical roles in nurturing and guiding students, shaping their academic paths, and contributing to their overall development. However, the pressures these professionals face, particularly in mental health, are often overlooked.
In the high-pressure environment of academia, educators grapple with various stressors. We need to maintain a balance between teaching, research, administrative duties, and personal responsibilities. We often deal with high expectations, performance pressure, job insecurity, increasing workload, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. All these factors can contribute to chronic stress, anxiety, and burnout. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly exacerbated these issues, with university staff adjusting to remote teaching, adapting to new technologies, and managing their work-life balance while working from home.
Non-academic staff members also face mental health challenges. They deal with high workload pressures, job security issues, and the responsibility of ensuring a safe and functional environment for students and staff. Moreover, they, too, had to adapt swiftly to changes induced by the pandemic, such as remote working conditions and increased health and safety responsibilities.
Poor mental health among university staff can have severe consequences. It can impair job performance, hinder student learning, and negatively impact interpersonal relationships. It can lead to serious health issues and high turnover rates in the long term.
Where to from here?
Recognising the urgency of this situation, Australian universities have taken several steps to prioritise staff and student mental health. Many institutions have bolstered their counselling services and implemented mental health awareness campaigns. Universities are creating safer, more inclusive environments where students feel comfortable seeking help without fear of stigmatisation.
Many universities in Australia and worldwide have implemented wellness programs and support systems for staff. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) provide confidential counselling services to staff dealing with work-related or personal issues. At RMIT University, we have a variety of resources in addition to the EAP via Converge International, which can be found here, and include fitness via the RMIT Gym, safety essentials, Safer Community, and the Health, Safety and Wellbeing policy. Also, please, please (and I cannot emphasise this enough, but please) check out the fantastic RMIT Mental Wellbeing SharePoint site. In the College of Business and Law, we also have the CoBL Wellbeing team, which hosts many sessions throughout the year, be sure to check out emails from COBL.firstname.lastname@example.org for further information and events.
Throughout May, the Counselling and Psychological Services at RMIT University ran several mental health and wellbeing webinars on topics such as Mindfulness in May, Managing Stress and Anxiety 101, The S Factor: Social Anxiety Support; Self Compassion, and Put Off Procrastination (RMIT University, n.d.). Further, the University shared its 'Six Ways of Wellbeing', a selection of evidence-based actions and behaviours to help people be well. These are:
- Be Balanced
- Be Active
- Be Grounded
- Be Connected
- Be Thoughtful
- Be Curious
For more information and resources, be sure to check out RMIT's Six Ways of Wellbeing page.
However, much more needs to be done. The stigma around mental health issues often prevents people from seeking help. Institutions must foster a culture of openness, where staff feel comfortable discussing mental health without fear of judgment or reprisal.
In September, we have R U OK? Day. This annual event encourages people to check in with others who may struggle with personal difficulties, mental illness, or emotional insecurity by asking, 'Are you okay?'. The event aims to reduce mental health stigma, promote community cohesiveness, and connect people with resources (check out their website in the link above). I also strongly encourage people to reflect and answer honestly. Remember, 'it's okay not to be okay' (a global mental health awareness campaign that aims to help people experiencing mental health issues or struggling with addictions).
Moreover, workloads and performance expectations must be managed more effectively to prevent burnout. Staff should be encouraged to maintain a healthy work-life balance and take time off for self-care. Staff wellness directly impacts students' learning experience and the overall health of the academic community. Hence, proactive measures to support staff mental health should be a priority, not just at RMIT University but in all universities. We must remember that our educators and support staff are not just employees – they are individuals whose mental wellbeing is paramount to them and the community they serve.
There are still challenges to overcome. Access to quality mental health services remains an issue, particularly for students and staff in regional and remote areas. Additionally, the unique pressures faced by international staff and students, Indigenous staff and students, and staff and students from diverse backgrounds, need to be addressed more effectively. The RMIT University website also has excellent information on supporting students (including welfare, support and care for students, and a staff line for urgent support) and general community mental health support links.
Mental health is essential to everyone's welfare in Australian higher education. Universities can create an environment where staff and students can thrive academically, emotionally, and socially. More work is needed, but we are making good progress. There is a cultural shift in which, these days, mental health is acknowledged, discussed, and treated with the seriousness it deserves in our higher education institutions.
Collegenp.com. (2023). Mental Health in Education: Importance, Strategies and Educator Support, accessed: https://www.collegenp.com/article/mental-health-in-education-importance-strategies-and-educator-support/, 5/6/2023.
Daly, N. (2021). Health experts warn young people are at centre of impending mental health crisis following COVID, ABC News, accessed: Health experts warn young people are at centre of impending mental health crisis following COVID - ABC News
Piovesan, A. (2021). Attempted suicide rates among Victorian teenagers soar by 184 per cent in past six months, Kids Helpline reveals, news.com.au, accessed: https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/mental-health/attempted-suicide-rates-among-victorian-teenagers-soar-by-184-per-cent-in-past-six-months-kids-helpline-reveals/news-story/db9d5136075a7c7edf4750a0391b0653#share-tools, 5/6/2023.
RMIT University. (2022). Mental Wellbeing Survey 2021 Results, accessed: https://www.rmit.edu.au/students/news/2022/march/mental-health-survey-results-2021, 5/6/2023.
RMIT University. (n.d.). Mental Health and Wellbeing Webinars, accessed: https://www.rmit.edu.au/students/student-life/events/2023/feb/mental-health-wellbeing-webinars, 5/6/2023.
World Health Organisation. (2022). COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide, accessed: https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide, 5/6/2023.