USyd needs to do better on student mental health

Unpacking the University’s lacklustre mental health programs.

Image credit: Infracraft

While Australia’s swift response to COVID-19 has allowed us to largely elude the levels of physical illness in many countries, it has also exacerbated an equally devastating mental health epidemic.

University students, who have been disproportionately affected by pandemic-related economic downturns, tertiary funding cuts, and social fragmentation, have had more mental health issues resulting from the pandemic. Troublingly, Headspace found in early 2020 that half of young people were struggling to perform everyday tasks.

This has translated into increased demand for mental health care services. At the height of lockdown, Beyond Blue reported a 63% increase in calls to their services.

But even before COVID-19, the state of youth mental health was precarious. A 2019 Headspace report noted “a rising tide of need” for mental health and suicide prevention services, and that young people’s mental health issues were becoming more complex and acute. The gravity of these statistics cannot be understated.

Young people face significant barriers to mental health care access. Even under a Medicare-subsidised Mental Health Care Plan, the standard gap fee for a psychological consultation is around $130, and doctors can only prescribe up to 10 sessions. For many students, paying $130 an hour is financially unsustainable. Moreover, students from lower socio-economic suburbs might not even be able to access services in their local area. Even for those who can access bulk-billing practices, which reduces the cost of consultations, many students report waiting around 6 months for an initial consultation, thanks to COVID-19. 

To address the mental health crisis, universities need to be more actively involved in introducing new models. While USyd does offer some services intended to support student wellbeing (including an after-hours helpline and online webinars), Professor Ian Hickie, Co-Director of the Brain and Mind Centre at USyd, says that “we have fallen behind other institutions.” USyd’s counselling program, CAPS, has been described by students as inadequate, due to its six-session limit. Hickie agrees, saying that CAPS is a “very small part of a much bigger health system.” Despite student-driven initiatives from around 2010 which placed USyd at the forefront of conversations around universities and mental health, USyd has since been “relatively slow to develop a system-wide response.” 

Instead of expanding CAPS, Hickie is in favour of universities taking a facilitatory approach. He believes the role of universities is not to provide mental health care directly, but to “assist students in connecting to community services and then continue to support students through their education while receiving help.”

In March, USyd made a promising announcement to help fund Dr Isabella Choi’s development of e-health services to improve the wellbeing of Chinese international students — an important move, given the particular barriers they might face in terms of language, social stigma and being excluded from Medicare.  Hickie is optimistic at the potential for digital technologies in supporting student wellbeing, saying that these areas have seen more change “in the last few months than the previous 10 years.”

USyd’s Wellbeing Strategy, released in August 2020, details promising but vague declarations to “embed mental wellbeing in all aspects of student life,” in response to COVID-19. There was little discussion of facilitating student access to external health services beyond the nondescript “building effective relationships with external service providers”.  

Although I was a student last semester, I was not made aware of peer-support services or wellbeing literacy workshops that were implemented. There seems to be a disconnect between a well-meaning administration and the acute needs of student populations, compounded by confusing communication (see USyd’s complex website) about those services that are available. It also seems naïve to assume that this strategy will result in a concrete change, where others have not.

USyd has a wealth of mental health experts on staff, and bargaining power that comes from representing 70,000 people. As such, it is uniquely situated to advocate for increased government funding for community mental health services for students, and to create access pathways for students who might otherwise fall under the radar of the public health care system, and to prevent some of them dropping out.COVID-19 shouldn’t be an excuse to halt new mental health initiatives; in fact, now is when they are needed most.

Hickie is clear that it will take more than hope to move USyd on these issues, saying that the institution should take the lead by implementing “a clear strategy…not leaving it up to students to sort out where they go next and what they do.”

Acknowledging “tremendous pressures” that funding cuts have placed on universities, Hickie nonetheless insisted that USyd’s administration “needs to acknowledge that it’s going to cost money, it’s going to take time, and they’re going to have to treat it seriously.”

“If the university is going to do anything substantive about these issues, now is the time.”