We need to speak up!

University is a high pressure environment. It’s no wonder that so many of us are struggling.

Some say that mental illness and suicide is the biggest issue of our generation, and a recent report has revealed how high the prevalence of depression and anxiety is in high school to university students.

The signs of mental illness and stress are everywhere: from the dark circles under eyes; the skipping of meals; tiredness; self doubt; the Beyond Blue posters in cubicles and in halls, not to mention the addictive Netflix TV series 13 Reasons Why.

But if the signs are everywhere, then what is being done to help us, the students?

Recent reports published by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute, as well as Headspace and the National Union of Students, reveal alarming statistics about the mental health of university students.

Mission Australia is a non-denominational Christian charity, which aims to help vulnerable Australians become independent. Operating for over 155 years, the charity focuses upon combatting homelessness, assisting disadvantaged families and children, addressing mental health issues, fighting substance dependencies and much more. Teaming up with the Black Dog Institute, a nonprofit facility founded in 2002 that operates in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders, the charities have conducted three national reports on young people’s mental health.

The Five Year Mental Health Youth Report (MHYR) presents five years worth of mental health data collected from surveys done by young people across Australia with a focus on their levels of psychological distress, their concerns, and the people and places they go to for help.

Kessler 6 (K6) was used to measure the level of psychological distress for the reports; K6 is a questionnaire that presents participants with six questions, all focused upon their mental health and wellbeing during the last 30 days.

The data collected spans from 2012 to 2016, covering the demographics of ages from 15-19 years old, female and male, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youths and non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youths.

The five-year report reveals a scarily high incidence of poor mental health in young people, with nearly one in four teens meeting the criteria for ‘probable serious mental illness.’

Catherine Yeomans, the CEO of Mission Australia, wrote in the report; “Mental health has continued to grow as an issue of concern for young people in Australia and despite recent efforts the numbers of young people experiencing psychological distress is on the rise.

“Mental health is such an important issue across all age groups and experiences of mental illness can have profound impacts on the wellbeing of young people.

“I was therefore alarmed to see that the prevalence of probable serious mental illness among young people had continued to increase, even since our last joint mental health report in 2015.

University is a high pressure environment … It’s no wonder that so many of us are struggling.

What was also concerning from this five year review is that the burden of probable serious mental illness is borne more heavily by young females than young males.”

The MHYR shows that the amount of girls likely to have a probable mental illness has increased from 22.5% in 2012 to 28.6% in 2016, compared to a smaller increase in males with 12.7% in 2012 to 14.1% in 2016.  However, it should also be noted that guys are less likely to come forward about mental illness issues that they may be having, therefore these statistics may be somewhat off the mark.

Professor Helen Christensen, the Director of the Black Dog Institute, said in a statement that, “these findings confirm that mental illness is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, and one that has to be tackled by the community, health services and families”

“Young people are our future. We owe it to them to follow the recommendations of this report and set them on a path to mentally healthier lives.”

The youth survey asked respondents to rate their amount of concern on twelve different issues, using a five star system ranging from ‘not at all concerned’ to ‘extremely concerned.’ The 12 topical issues included; alcohol, body image, bullying/emotional abuse, coping with stress, depression, discrimination, drugs, family conflict, gambling, personal safety, school or study problems and suicide.

The report revealed that coping with stress and school or study problems were among the top three issues. Both males and females responded with a rating of ‘very’ or ‘extremely concerned.’

A notable difference in the report is that females indicated a much higher concern about body image.

Josie, a first-year Bachelor of Psychological Science and Bachelor of Law UTAS student, has been diagnosed with several acute mental illnesses: Anorexia Nervosa, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

She is forced to study part-time as her mental illnesses prevent her from taking on a full time workload in addition to appointments, therapy and long-stay hospital admissions.

“From my perspective, young females are at a higher risk of mental illness due to having additional pressure placed on us to fit certain criteria in regard to success, both academic and social, as well as beauty standards, economic uncertainty, etcetera. Which can all lead to the onset of a mental illness,” she said.

Working as a casual receptionist at a gym, Josie finds balancing her work, study and mental and physical health difficult.

“I believe that the typical student falls within the age group where some of the most influential decisions of their lives are being made, [and] you’re basically thrown into this adult-like world in which you have very little knowledge of how to deal with it,” she said. “I find it is often not Uni itself causes my mental health to decline, but rather the concept of how to balance Uni with everything else going on in my life.”

Josie said that the stress and deadlines of university assignments, as well as the expectation that she places upon herself, is a major trigger for her anxiety.

“The pressure and stress I feel is overwhelming, when everyone around you seems to have everything ‘together’, and I am just here in a frenzy of self-doubt and confusion, the added pressure to do well can be all-consuming.”

I doubt that Josie’s situation and perspective, or the information in the reports, will surprise the students of UTas; it definitely didn’t shock me to know that seventy per cent of university students rated their mental health as ‘poor’ in a new survey conducted by Headspace and the National Union of Students last year.

Headspace CEO Jason Trethowan described the survey results as alarming, but not surprising. In a statement accompanying the report, he said, “like all big life transitions, after finishing year twelve young people can be more vulnerable; they are an at-risk group with no clear check-in point for mental health difficulties.”

We need to start talking to each other about mental health, and to remember that it’s okay to not be okay.

University is a high pressure environment with deadlines, weekly readings and tasks, 2000-plus word assignments, presentations, quizzes, efforts  to fit in Wednesday Uni night drinks, and going to the gym. It’s no wonder that so many of us are struggling.

There are professional counselors in most schools, including at UTas, but what other accessible and free mental health support programs are there in Tasmania?

Speak Up! Stay ChatTY is a local not-for-profit charity that hopes to focus on universities in the future.

Young Australian of the Year, Mitch McPherson established the charity in 2013, in response to his little brother Ty’s tragic suicide. Mitch and the team work to prevent suicide by spreading Mitch’s story of loss, and encouraging others to speak up and seek help when they need it.

With the help of Relationships Australia, Speak Up launched a schools program in September 2016 that is designed for young people aged between 14-25 and aims to enhance young people’s awareness of mental health and to give them the knowledge and skills to achieve and maintain positive mental health.

The programs include a free two-hour session with an hour follow-up session a week later, both of which are facilitated by Mitch and a qualified counselor/social worker from Relationships Australia.

Mitch said that the schools program was one thing that he wanted to do from the very beginning of the charity.

“My brother was eighteen and he had obviously just gone through high school and college and about to start a job,” he said.

“Suicide was the personal ‘click’ that I wanted to make sure we could get into that age group so that we could make sure that people like Ty knew that there was help and that they could speak up if they are battling.”

Mitch is hoping to bring the program to universities in the future, especially now that the reports, such as MHYR  from the Black Dog Institute and Mission Australia, show the significant need for more support and awareness.

“When I first started I was sending out emails saying ‘can I come and talk to you guys?’ and I haven’t done that in three years simply because people just contact us, we’re pretty much booked out all year already. So hopefully with some funding, other people can get on board and it’ll free me up a lot more.”

Speak up! Stay Chatty announced in May last year that the Tasmanian Government is supporting the schools program with $250,000. Hopefully with this extra funding and support, Mitch will be able to broaden the focus to encompass universities and even work on permanently implementing mental health programs into schools.

“I think it should be a part of the curriculum to have some sort of focus on mental health and I think that ours isn’t the most perfect program ever, I know that there’s still things to change, but I think that the fact that we’re getting out there and preventing it is really important, and I think all schools should get around what we’re doing or some other school program.

“I think that suicide is everyone’s business, of every school, whether it’s large or small, and I think that we need to address it, so for the teachers to take it upon themselves to implement something like us, or another organisation, would be good because that will let the kids know to come forward to them and to have a chat if they’re struggling or going through a difficult time.”

With alarming statistics being shown in publications like the Five Year Mental Health Youth Report, endless amounts of stories like Josie’s and Mitch’s, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing that the rate of death by suicide is the highest it has been in ten years  —  we need to start talking to each other about mental health, and to remember that it’s okay to not be okay.

If you or anyone you know needs help:

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36 

Headspace on 1800 650 890 

Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467

This piece originally appeared in Togatus, a student publication of the University of Tasmania. You can check out Togatus’ website here. Republished with permission from the author.

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