Australia: Students' mental health problems growing in numbers and complexity
Perfectionism can affect people of all ages and lifestyles, but it's increasingly prevalent among students. Source: Mindmo/Shutterstock

University students Down Under report higher levels of distress due to the demands and environment of their varsities, a situation support services feel they are ill-equipped to treat, according to a new report by the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health (Orygen).

One in four students aged between 15 and 24 years old will experience mental illness in any one year. University counselling services are reporting they are seeing these cases grow more frequent, severe and complex. What lies behind students’ plight is said to be a combination of “risk factors”, such as poor health, substance abuse, financial stress and high expectations.

“We know a number of students are concerned they’re accumulating an increasing amount of debt to obtain an academic qualification,” Orygen senior policy analyst Vivienne Browne said, as reported by ABC.

“There’s also an understanding among uni students the bar of entry into the workforce is becoming higher, and there’s no expectation they’re going to get work straight away,” Brown said.

The report comes only a few days after the Australian government announced sweeping changes to its higher education sector, including fee hikes and requiring students to repay their loans earlier. The move has drawn sharp criticism from students, universities and parents for its suddenness and the heavy debt burden it would place on students.

While Orygen’s new report notes there are major gaps in the research available on this issue, existing data shows students are more likely to experience “mild-moderate psychological distress” than their non-student peers.

These students who struggle are then faced with the stigma that surrounds mental health issues. As a result, these students then avoid seeking help within their university to protect their reputation, academic results and job prospects.

The report traces this state of affairs to the absence of policies on mental health issue at the government level – Australia is said to lag behind countries like the United Kingdom, United States and Canada in improving tertiary students’ mental health.

“Given almost a quarter of a million young Australian university students are likely to experience mental ill-health during any one year at university, it is imperative this gap is addressed,” the report suggested.

Failure to do so will come at a dear cost for Australians now and in the future. More students will drop out and this leads to a cycle of poorer mental wellbeing. Their social mobility will also be stunted as their education and employment pathways will be cut off.

If the government does not intervene early, it will have to foot the bill for further mental health systems and lose investment when a student drops out

While universities are stepping up their efforts through more policies and programmes, the report calls for more varsities to collaborate with the mental health sector to improve research and data collection, among others.

“In short, there is a need to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of university students are included within the core business of higher education delivery in Australia,” the report said.

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