Australian universities are failing to take responsibility for their students’ mental health and should invest in a national research centre to advance the cause, a new report urges.
It recommends institutions develop their own mental health strategy and a portion of students’ fees go directly toward funding student-led initiatives, to redress what former Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry calls the “neglected predicament of tertiary students”.
National statistics released earlier this week showed the suicide rate has risen to its highest level in 13 years, driven in part by women of university age.
The report to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust urges the nation’s vice-chancellors to take their students’ mental wellbeing more seriously, and to view it as a key contributor to academic success.
“Other countries have recognised that their students have mental heath problems and they need to adequately resource those services on campus,” said author Benjamin Veness, a former president of the Australian Medical Students’ Association. He visited campuses in the US, Britain and Canada on the Churchill Fellowship.
“I think universities here have conceived of students’ mental health as a nuisance rather than something they should take responsibility for,” he said.
Depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and substance misuse – often related to depression or anxiety – were the most common problems affecting students’ mental health, Mr Veness said. But there has been a failure to intervene, he said, because universities typically do not consider students’ health to be within their remit. A key difference between tertiary education here and in the US is that American students commonly live on campus rather than at home.
Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week showed suicide accounted for a third of all deaths of 15-24 year olds. In 2014, 2864 people died by suicide in Australia. Of them, 362 were aged 15-24, or about one young person every day. Mr Veness said that demonstrated the need for action: “We could cut the youth death rate by a third if we had better services to intervene.”
In 2011, a national summit advised universities to develop a comprehensive mental health policy. Some institutions have taken action, such as Western Sydney University, whose regime includes partnerships with local health districts focusing on substance abuse, sexual health and “healthy lifestyles”. But “very very few [universities] have actually done this”, Mr Veness said.
The report cites the Jed Foundation, based in New York, as a model for a national research centre on student mental health. The foundation has also developed and disseminated programs for students struggling with the transition from high school, substance misuse and other issues. Mr Veness proposed Australian universities, especially the Group of Eight, could encourage philanthropy to fund a similar, multimillion-dollar centre locally.
The recommendations have been endorsed by youth mental health expert Mr McGorry. He said 26 per cent of 18-24 year olds experience mental ill health in any single year, and half require care at some point in their transition to adulthood.
“The waste of creative, economic and productive potential is most dramatic when we consider the impact of preventable, untreated or poorly treated mental ill health in tertiary students,” Mr McGorry said.
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This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 18 March 2016.