Maintaining mental health for tertiary students

Understanding mental health

The tertiary years are an exciting time of new opportunities. For some of us the university years are about studying hard – striving for the career path we see before us. For others, there might be a greater propensity towards fun and socialising. Either way, the often-complex schedule of classes, work, social events, family time, and hobbies can be overwhelming.

If you’re a tertiary student then you could be dealing with a mix of stressors that are physical, cognitive, psycho-social, emotional, environmental and economic. These challenges can lead to mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression. They can also worsen an existing diagnosed mental health disorder.

If you are experiencing challenging feelings or moods, or feel like you are not coping, please don’t stop reading here – understand that you are normal and worthy of receiving help. If you are here to find out more about mental health during the tertiary years, you can also learn some simple ways to support your friends, family and peers.

What do recent studies say about the mental health of tertiary students?

While findings of well-being studies often vary, almost all suggest that maintaining mental health is a significant challenge for young people during the tertiary years.

In 2017, Orygen found that 1 in 4 of Australia’s 1.4 million tertiary students experienced mental ill-health. In the same year, Headspace found that as many as 70% of responding students rated their mental health as ‘poor or fair’, while 2 in 3 had experienced ‘very high psychological distress’ in a 12-month period.

Overall, around 2 in 5 Australians now report a lifetime mental health problem, and 16–24-year-olds (40%) are most likely to have experienced symptoms of a mental disorder in the previous 12 months (AIHW, 2022).

A more recent RMIT study of students (2022) found that not only was mental health generally ‘low’, but that students with lived experience as LGBTIQ+ or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as well as those with disability or from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, were at increased risk and reported lower well-being.

In recent years we have all experienced the additional burdens of a global pandemic and rapidly changing economic conditions. Many psychologists and mental health experts have suggested the long-term impacts of this are still being assessed.

Mental health statistics can often draw a picture of doom and gloom, but they don’t have to. For starters, the statistics tell us that mental health problems are not uncommon, so those experiencing these challenges should never feel alone or ashamed. They also allow us to acknowledge the problem and develop the resources needed.

There are many supports that can help people experiencing a mental health problem, including formal counselling or therapies, clinical treatments, online well-being tools, informal support groups, or simply talking about it with trusted friends, family, colleagues or educators. 

    What are some of the common mental health problems reported by students?

    Like physical illness or injury, mental health problems come in all different forms. They may be developing, worsening, or reaching crisis point. They may also look and feel different depending on the personality, environment, biology and circumstances of the person experiencing them.

    Commonly reported mental health problems for students include:

      Less common (still prevalent) mental illnesses include:

      • Trauma (PTSD or complex trauma)
      • Schizophrenia
      • Bipolar disorder
      • Psychosis
      • Other mood disorders or complex psycho-social problems.

      What are some specific risk factors for students?

      Tertiary students not only fall within the age group in which many mental health disorders become prominent, but they may also experience additional environmental and circumstantial challenges.

      Here are some common risk factors: 

      • Busy schedules of study and work
      • Pressure to ‘achieve’ or expectations on self or from others
      • Worry about grades or personal/educational/professional performance
      • Lack of sleep or poor sleep hygiene
      • Poor diet or eating patterns
      • Overuse or misuse of alcohol or drugs
      • Being away from family/living away from home
      • Financial stress
      • Feeling socially disconnected
      • Fears or concerns about the future
      • Undertaking risky behaviours
      • Sudden adverse life events such as a death of a loved one
      • Relationship struggles or conflict (family, friends, romantic partners)
      • Experiences of abuse or violence (physical, sexual, emotional, or other)

      Again, these risks may also be exacerbated if the person in question identifies as: 

      • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australian
      • Culturally and linguistically diverse or a student living abroad
      • LGBTQI+
      • Living with disability
      • Neurodiverse
      • Living with a pre-existing diagnosed mental illness.

      How does it present i.e. what does it look like?

      Everyone experiences mental health problems differently. There are many factors that come into play, such as a person’s life experiences and upbringing, their culture and beliefs, hereditary factors, and the environment they are in. Personality plays a big role too. Some people may seem the life of the party but be struggling behind the scenes. Conversely, it may be hard to spot signs with someone who is more reserved or introverted.

      Here are some common signs to look out for (particularly if out of character or context):

      • Sudden or erratic mood changes
      • Withdrawal – physically or socially
      • Noticeable absences from class, work or hobbies
      • Avoiding normal situations, places, topics or people
      • Looking or conveying feeling down, low, flat or sad
      • Crying or breaking down (publicly or privately)
      • Sudden emotional outbursts e.g. anger or frustration
      • Talking about negative feelings or moods e.g. “I feel so sad/lonely/depressed/flat”
      • Tired much of the time or not sleeping properly
      • Anxious or erratic movements e.g. jitters, ticks, startled or jumpy
      • Not eating properly or displaying disordered eating behaviours
      • Failing to show up to classes, work shifts, or other commitments
      • A sudden drop in grades or educational performance
      • Negative self-talk e.g. “I’m a failure”, “I suck” or “I can’t do this”
      • Negative talk about life e.g. “what’s the point?”, “life is too hard” or “I hate uni”
      • Preoccupation with death or dying
      • Self-harming or non-suicidal self-injury e.g. cutting, burning, scratching or unexplained injuries
      • Suicidal thoughts (ideation)
      • Talk about suicide or making plans to suicide
      • Suicidal behaviours or attempts.

      Note: none, some, many or all of these signs might be present. Mental health problems may also be temporary for some, and long-lasting for others. Not everyone experiencing signs is at a point of crisis, but some people are. You can initiate conversation and explore whether the person needs immediate help, or whether they just need someone to connect with them in a moment of need.

      How do I help a tertiary student experiencing a mental health problem?

      Maybe you’ve read this, and you recognise that someone you know may be experiencing a mental health problem. It might seem outside your expertise. That’s ok, because everyone can contribute to the mental health of others. It starts with conversation and a genuine offer of support.

      Mental Health First Aid® (MHFA) training is an ideal early intervention program for all tertiary institutions. MHFA training enables everyday people students, educators and staff to become a safety-net of community-led support for others.

      Peer-to-peer support has a strong evidence base and is a highly practical way to mobilise skills across campuses, residences and communities, to ensure that everyone feels supported in their time of need. It teaches the knowledge, skills and confidence to identify and respond to developing, worsening or crisis level mental health problems. 

      Mental Health First Aid courses teach participants how to use an evidence-based action plan to initiate a mental health first aid conversation.

      What are some simple steps I can take (until I am trained in mental health first aid)?

      • Normalise conversations about mental health: Educate yourself on mental health and genuine and accurate ways to talk about it. Avoid language that stigmatises the person or their experience or enhances myths and misconceptions about mental health. The way you talk about mental health will impact those people around you who are experiencing a problem. 
      • Start a conversation. If you think someone is experiencing mental health problem, this is important. It can however feel like the hardest part. Mental Health First Aid training teaches simple, proven techniques to make this conversation easier (from approaching and asking, to listening, to offering care), but here are some conversation starters to consider. 

      “You’ve seemed a bit down lately, want to go for a walk with me?”

      “I can see you’re upset, it’s okay, let’s go somewhere private so you can take a break and we can chat.”

       “Life seems hard for you at the moment, let’s grab a coffee and you can tell me what’s been going on if you feel up to it.” 

      • Get training: Mental Health First Aid training will provide you with the knowledge, skills and confidence to deliver meaningful mental health conversations and interventions that:

      a. Consider how to ask, offer support and practice active listening.
      b. Teach how to identify risks and symptoms that increase understanding of the situation and what the person might be experiencing.
      c. Provide options for connecting the person with further formal and informal supports.
      d. Keep you, as the Mental Health First Aider (MHFAider®), confident, flexible and safe in your approach, while continuing to focus on helping the person in need of support.

        What if it’s me who isn’t coping?

        You are not alone. Help is available to everyone, and suffering in silence is not the answer. You are worthy of support. If someone reaches out to you, share your feelings but you don’t have to wait for that to happen.

        Tell someone how you are feeling today or take the brave steps to seeking help through a GP or university or private counsellor/psychologist, or by contacting a helpline or outreach service:

        Mental Health First Aid! It can change or save a life.

        If you want to develop your own skills to support others, or you’re looking at how your university can address mental health more broadly, then Mental Health First Aid training can help.

        Who should undertake MHFA training in universities?

        • Students (to support their peers)
        • Counsellors or other intervention and outreach leaders (to support their students)
        • All academic/administrative staff (to support students and their own peers)

        Every tertiary institution needs MHFAiders – ready to offer their support. Find out more:

        If you feel like a problem is too big for you to handle and the person you are worried about is it at risk, find someone who can help them immediately.

        If you or anyone you know needs help:

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        Covering a wide range of current and topical issues and taking a closer look at some of the common types of mental health problems, our articles are the perfect way to enhance your knowledge and understanding.

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