General News Sector News — 12 January 2017
Universities Need An Education In Youth Mental Health

Australian universities demonstrated commendable leadership over the course of 2016 in tackling the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

In collaboration with the Australian Human Rights commission, the leaders of all 39 Australian universities launched the nation’s first ever survey to identify university student experiences of sexual violence, and released a supporting online campaign Respect. Now. Always, to promote help seeking and reporting of offences. This campaign also coincided with the release of ‘The Hunting Ground’ documentary, which was screened across many Australian universities and paved the way for a national conversation on this issue.

 Such an unprecedented period of focus allowed many universities around the country to strengthen their sexual harassment policies, initiate new prevention programs, and make substantive progress in the elimination of sexual violence on university campuses. Although much work remains to be done, this approach is a clear example of what can be achieved when senior leaders within the tertiary sector, together with the support of students and external bodies, come together to take real action on an issue of critical importance.
Another pressing issue that requires the full focus and will of the university community over the coming months and years is the alarmingly high levels of mental ill-health among tertiary aged students. It is now a well-known fact that over 75 percent of all mental illness emerges in individuals before the age of 25, and 1 in 4 Australians aged 16-24 are living with a mental disorder.

 A significant proportion of young people grappling with mental illness are already at university, or have the potential to be participating in education at this level with the appropriate supports in place.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

In an educational landscape that is increasingly internationalised, and with universities widening their admission policies to enable students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds to access tertiary education, a diverse range of emotional and social challenges come up.

Ultimately, universities are the principal incubators of the future leaders and contributors of our society, and therefore, the services and interventions that are in place to promote the mental health and wellbeing of students need to be of the highest quality.

Through a Freedom of Information request, the leading universities in the United Kingdom were called on last week to share how much they each spend on mental health services per each student annually. The disparity in expenditure between these institutions are staggering, with Oxford spending £48.25 per student while the University of Central Lancashire contributes a meagre £4.64 per student.

While funding tells an important part of the story, it should also be noted that there is no government or sector-wide policy that specifies a common set of expectations for universities in the United Kingdom around their responsibilities in this area.

In Australia, even less is known about the mental health policies and models of care that are at work within our universities. While successive governments over the past decade have been focussed on building the capability of the mental health sector at large, particularly with the development of nationwide services such as Headspace and beyondblue, settings such as universities and schools, where young people spend the most amount of their time, have received little to no meaningful attention.

As a consequence, this has left universities to their own devices, to implement policies and support services that they feel are appropriate to their student population within the context of their organisational capacity and other priorities. While such an approach has yielded a wide variety of innovative strategies over the years, the mental health and wellbeing of young Australians is far too serious an issue for it not to have clear, nationwide, and binding leadership.

Despite this absence of a clear policy direction from the government, Australian universities are already well poised to advance the nation’s mental wealth through improving mental health within the youth population. One such example is Monash University, who were awarded the World Health Organisation’s Healthy Workplace Award from a pool of organisations from around the world, for the delivery of a wide range of programs and services, including in the area of mental health support for its students and staff. Monash has also embedded resilience and mindfulness training into some of its most academically rigorous courses, delivers online learning to students, staff and indeed the wider community on these same topics free of cost, and actively participates in mental health awareness days and campaigns. However, Monash University’s efforts needs to be the standard across all universities, and not the exception.

Across all Australian universities, there should be a clear and consistent requirement in place for what services and programs they are required to provide for students. A robust policy needs to be developed to hold universities to account about their responsibilities in this area and to provide greater direction around the way in which these institutions partner with the public mental health system and other service providers in the provision of care. Screening for emerging illnesses and an understanding of overall student morale should be inextricably connected to the planning and coordination of services and programs at the university. Cultures around academic expectations and assessments need reviewing so as to ensure that it drives students to success, rather than to perpetuate dysfunctional behaviours and distress.

If Australia is to successfully maximise the opportunities afforded by the knowledge economy and harness the talents of a highly skilled labour force, its educational institutions play a vital role — not only in developing the skills, capabilities and minds of the future generation — but in nurturing a generation of young people to be healthy and resilient.

As can be witnessed in the way in which universities are proactively tackling the scourge of sexual violence, and in making the campuses where students learn and interact with each other safer, substantive progress in this area is achievable. Underpinned by government leadership, strengthening the capacity of universities to care for its most important assets, its students, must be a priority of the greatest importance.

This article first appeared on ‘The Huffington Post’ on 11 January 2017.

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