Research — 05 May 2017

students-reading-books-and-preparing-to-exam_1098-2290Days after the Federal Government announced a uni student fee hike, a national report has found students have higher rates of mental health problems than non-students, and being loaded with debt doesn’t help.

The report by the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, Orygen, lists some key reasons why uni students struggle with mental health. They include, lack of sleep, poor diet, being away from family, feelings of isolation among international students, academic pressure, uncertain graduate employment, and financial stress.

Because there’s no solid baseline data, the report stops short of concluding uni students have become more stressed, but it points out that students counsellors have been warning for years of increasing demand for their services, and not enough resources.

Some of this may be due to the destigmatisation of mental health, meaning more students are likely to go and see a counsellor.

But apart from this, there are deeper causes, according to Vivienne Browne, Orygen Senior Policy Analyst.

“We know a number of students are concerned they’re accumulating an increasing amount of debt to obtain an academic qualification,” she said.

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

To summarise: higher fees and job anxiety is creating student stress.

This is backed up by Jeremy Cass, a psychologist and manager of counselling services at RMIT university in Melbourne. He estimated there had been a 10 per cent increase in demand for counselling services at the university just in the past year.

“The main two are depression and anxiety,” he said.

A lot of students are stressed about life in general.”

The increase in demand experienced at RMIT is happening at other universities. In 2013, the umbrella body for student services associations in Australia and New Zealand, ANZSSA, found counselling services were reporting seeing more students with mental health problems.

The Orygen report comes only two days after the the Federal Government released its proposed higher education reform. Student fees will rise 7.5 per cent by 2021, and the HELP repayment income threshold will decrease from $55,000 to $42,000.

Students will have more debt and have to pay it back sooner.

Let’s look at the potential causes of mental health problems among students:

1. Financial pressure

A Universities Australia report in 2013 found most uni students today are living under the poverty line and have 30 per cent more debt in 2012 than 2006.

Two-thirds of undergraduates were worried about their financial situation.

Students with financial stress were twice as likely to report mental illness compared to students with no financial stress.

Last week, an AngliCare report found housing affordability was at an all-time low. This year, out of 67,000 properties surveyed, the research found less than 1 per cent were affordable for pensioners and those on other Centrelink benefits, or those earning the minimum wage.

Vivienne Brown said many students are having to work full-time or many part-time hours.

“It means studying through the day and working at night,” she said,

“This is impacting on quality of sleep and diet.”

2. ‘The rising bar’ and low graduate employment

There are over 1.4 million university students in Australia. The figure has been going up steeply since a 2008 review of higher education set a target of 40 per cent of 25-34 year olds having a bachelor degree or above by 2020. It’s gone up so steeply we may have already reached the target.

One consequence of the increase has been the value of a bachelor degree being partly diluted by the number of graduates. Where a bachelor degree may once have secured you a job, now you need a masters-level degree. Rates of graduate employment have also gone down.

“A number of students are aware that, unlike in the past, obtaining a bachelor or equivalent degree isn’t enough to make them competitive in the workforce,” Vivienne said.

“They’re having to go on and do further study like masters courses costing more money and pushing them further into debt.”

“That job uncertainty is impacting on levels of stress and well being.”

3. Academic pressure

The 2008 review also set a target of more student enrolments from low socio-economic backgrounds. The Orygen report suggests these students may be at an increased risk of mental health problems due to academic and financial pressures.

Related to this has been the lowering of admission requirements – students who didn’t have the marks to get into a degree can now go.

Jeremy Cass from RMIT said this change was the main reason for the increase in demand for counselling services at the university.

“We’re getting students who historically wouldn’t go but now everyone is offered a place,” he said.

“The standards are still high and some are just not coping with the complexity of the academic side of school.”

4. Lonely international students

The last decade has also seen massive growth in international student numbers. They now make up about a quarter of the total and their fees help subsidise the places of domestic students. Education is our third biggest export, worth about $20 billion.

The Orygen report found that due to culture, language and academic practices international students are at increased risk of mental ill-health.

This is compounded by loneliness, due to loss of contact with family and friends.

Jeremy Cass said about a third of students accessing the RMIT counselling services were international students – about the same proportion as the student body.

“You’d think it might be higher, but for cultural reasons they might not access counselling.”

5. Counsellors are swamped

The student to counsellor ratio in Australia is a lot higher than in the United States – about 4,340 students per counsellor compared to 1,527 per counsellor.

A 2016 study found no large Australian university has enough counsellors to meet international or ANZSSA recommendations.

“I am concerned,” Jeremy Cass told Hack. “Universities have increased their numbers but resources for counsellors haven’t increased.

“At RMIT they’ve remained the same for the past five years.”

In the 2013 ANZSSA survey, the majority of counselling services felt they did not have enough staff to meet the expected level of service delivery.

‘We need mental health programs in unis’

Among other recommendations, Orygen is calling on the Government to extend its youth mental health programs to university students.

“Currently government-funded mental health education programs are not being extended past secondary schools,” Vivienne Brown said.

“We believe that given young people 18-25 most at risk of an onset of mental illness it doesn’t make sense these education programs aren’t being extended.”

This piece was first published on ‘ABC.net.au’ 3 May 2017.

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