One in four young people between the ages of 15 and 25 will develop a mental health disorder. Of these, many will be at university, a time when young people become increasingly vulnerable to adult pressures. The transition from school to university can be difficult enough without the added burden of a mental health disorder.
Despite young people being in such need, they are also the group least likely to seek help for mental health concerns. This means treatment is often significantly delayed even if there is recognition of symptoms. The mental health problems of depression, anxiety and substance abuse are the most common and, worryingly in an environment that promotes excessive drinking as a bonding tool, alcohol dependence is the number one substance abuse disorder.
Many think of university as a carefree time in life, a time when students are allowed to explore, make mistakes and learn what it means to be independent. Instead, once out of school, those entering university are often faced with little or no support network, an ever-increasing academic demand and all the financial and social pressures that come with being young and newly independent.
It can be difficult to balance the need for secure employment with the development of new relationships and experiences of greater freedom. At the same time, the markers for adulthood are changing: people are marrying and having children much later, job security and a career path are no longer so straightforward, and financial independence is less assured. This elongated time of uncertainty adds to the vulnerability of an already vulnerable population.
All of these factors exacerbate mental health disorders, often with both short and long-term negative consequences. Sufferers experience high emotional distress, a reduced capacity to work and have lower social functioning. This can lead to disrupted study, lower academic achievement, lowered career prospects, poorer social relationships and poorer long-term physical health.
Like any other sickness, mental health problems result in missed days, work left undone and wasted opportunities. Making up for missed lessons is very difficult and can force students to repeat a subject or leave university altogether. In fact, 86% of university students severely affected by mental illness will drop out, adding to their sense of worthlessness and failure.
Some of our brightest, most capable young people are being severely let down by the lack of services and proper support for mental health problems. A strategy is needed to tackle this problem.
While students do have access to counselling services, in a story that is echoed throughout the mental health care system, services are overloaded and cannot offer the long-term, ongoing support students need. Tutors are unlikely to know the best way to assist a struggling student beyond referring to university policy. While universities do offer mental health first aid training, it is not mandatory.
Mental illness is still a taboo and stigmatised issue. “Admitting” to mental illness can be confronting in the best of circumstances. Hence students may struggle with approaching a tutor to discuss mental health concerns. The issue could be exacerbated if the tutor is someone the student admires or fears, or both, and does not want to disappoint, or if the student is afraid of a negative or dismissive reaction.
What can be done?
Extensions and special consideration may give a student the breathing space needed to complete assignments and not fail a course. But this is a reactive rather than a proactive and preventative approach.
Despite the great efforts being made in schools to address mental health and social, emotional learning - for example KidsMatter and MindMatters, programs that work to integrate mental health skills in schools - there is no equivalent focus on the tertiary settings which cater to post-school youth.
With such high rates of mental illness, it is imperative that we support tertiary students in ways that promote not only their learning but their emotional and mental resilience. We need to recognise the unique pressures higher education students face and find ways of equipping them with the skills to deal with those pressures.
The health sector should begin investing in universities as key sites for mental health promotion. This could include mandatory training in mental health first aid for all staff, and additional training for tutors to promote a positive, engaging and inclusive classroom culture.
Social and emotional learning should be explicitly taught alongside academic skills, with a focus on self-care, coping and resilience. Investment in the counselling service, with additional trained staff and the added possibility of long-term treatment options, would go a long way in supporting mentally ill students who might not otherwise have access to treatment.