8 Nov 2017

More students are seeking help from university mental health services

10:47 am on 8 November 2017

An uncertain future.


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Photo: 123rf

Many universities are boosting their support services to cope with a growing number of calls for help with mental health.

RNZ reported there have been at least four suspected Otago University student suicides this year, plus others involving flatmates or former students.

The Students' Association Support Centre said demand for mental health services has surged over the past two years and is now about half of its workload. The university is also restructuring its Student Health service to bring in clinical psychologists and get mental health problems addressed quicker.

The Wireless asked AUT, Auckland University, Victoria University and Massey University and all said they too had seen a notable increase in students seeking help.

About 10 percent of Victoria’s student population currently use its mental health services every year, and the amount is growing.

Victoria’s manager of student counselling and wellbeing, Gerard Hoffman, said his team, despite being relatively big, fears some are missing out.

“The real demand is probably significantly higher than that 10 percent. We have waiting times throughout the year,” he said.

“If we had a bigger team we would see more students.”

Hoffman said his team, like any mental health service, has to prioritise: “We have appointments set aside each day for students who might be in what we call a crisis situation.”

“If a student came into today and they, or a friend, were concerned about their safety, we would see them today.”

He said there was a small increase in student health funding this year.

Hoffman said part of the reason for an uptick in presentations was an increasing awareness of mental health and wellbeing, and an understanding of how important it is to seek help: “I think there’s less of a stigma these days.”

About 10 percent of Victoria University’s students use its mental health services

About 10 percent of Victoria University’s students use its mental health services Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

He said the type of issues students report include financial burdens and the expectation they should work part time alongside study. Many fear answering to the university’s performance culture and an uncertain future where employment prospects are by no means certain.

He said there are usually about three or four student suicides each year.

Over the past four years, Victoria University’s wellbeing survey has consistently found about 45 percent of students experience poor emotional wellbeing. They report sleep deprivation, highly levels of stress and anxiety.

At AUT, the counselling and mental health service this year added three new practitioners to cope with an increasing number of students seeking help.

“Depression and anxiety are more common presentations, along with managing life issues such as relationships, finances, and lacking personal support systems,” the university said.

Last month, AUT launched a Resilience App that aims to “help students and staff build mental strength and increase their ability to withstand stressful situations”.

“It’s not a silver bullet by itself, but it’s an important means of connecting with technology-driven students who may not want to open up to a counsellor,” said AUT’s group director of student services and administration, Joanna Scarbrough.

Massey University said student health and counselling services at all three of its campuses - Wellington, Manawatū and Auckland - have experienced a steadily growing demand from students suffering from anxiety and stress-related symptoms.

Last year, a survey of students using Massey’s Auckland campus service found one in five had experienced suicidal thoughts.

The university said some of its practitioners have experienced great difficulty getting mental health staff at district health boards to accept referrals for assessment and treatment.

What has been noted is an increase in students coming ... with already quite complex mental health needs.

A student is referred to a DHB when their needs are more severe than the university is equipped to deal with.

In terms of the type of issues the university is noticing, its practitioners said it was common to see students who were failing to cope with criticism or the fear of failure.

At Auckland University, a spokesperson said there had been a noticeable increase in demand for its health and counselling services.

“What has been noted is an increase in students coming to the University with already quite complex mental health needs, often with existing engagement with Community Mental Health,” they said.

“Students present with a variety of mental health issues, at times with a level of risk. Anxiety is a common presentation and appears to be increasing.”

The university has increased its number of doctors, nurses and counsellors over the past two years and extended the daily hours its health and counselling service is open.

The spokesperson said at least three students are suspected to have died from suicide this year.

The University of Canterbury, which also has an on-campus health centre with GPs and counsellors, would not comment for privacy reasons, but confirmed there has been one suspected suicide in the university community this year.


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Lifeline: 0800 543 354

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