A national survey released today by Headspace and the National Union of Students reports that tertiary study is taking a psychological toll on Australian students. The majority of those who responded said they were stressed, anxious, or depressed—and more than a third were contemplating self harm or suicide.
The survey also revealed that almost 70 percent of students aged between 17 and 25 rate their mental health as "poor." Almost 80 percent reported feeling anxious, while about 60 percent had feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness. Another 55 percent said they had trouble sleeping, while around 35 percent experienced thoughts of self harm or suicide.
In a statement accompanying the survey results, Headspace CEO Jason Trethowan said he was alarmed by the state of mental health on campuses around Australia—but not surprised. "After finishing year 12 young people can be more vulnerable, they are an at-risk group with no clear check-in point for mental health difficulties," he wrote. "They are a group who can fall through the cracks."
It's a tricky time to be a young person in Australia right now. Youth unemployment is hovering at at 13 percent, while underemployment is at its highest level in 40 years. Meanwhile, recent attempts by the federal government to cut weekend penalty rates and tighten restrictions on receiving Newstart makes the job market even more uncertain and competitive.
Two Melbourne-based university students who spoke to VICE said that these external factors were having an impact on their stress levels while studying, and were fostering an atmosphere of competition among students on campus. "We're basically made to compete—in our workplaces and schools. It's hard to get jobs, it's hard to get into university and do something that you want to do because the requirements are so high, there's a lot of pressure and not enough support," said Honoree Kalisa, a 23-year-old student at RMIT.
Balancing study with work is a huge factor in Kalisa's stress. "I have a casual job which is coming to an end soon, and the cost of living is quite high, rent is quite high, minimum wages are low, and it's hard to live out of home," she says. "There's pressure to grow up quickly, get out of high school, go to uni, get your own place, get a job, start a life on your own—but then there are no jobs to earn enough money to do that. Then you think you're failing."
Originally from Rwanda, Kalisa grew up in a refugee camp and says her experiences as a young migrant add an additional layer of pressure. "For most people who grew up the way I grew up, it's harder for them in some Australian communities because the pressure [from family] is huge. It's quite hard to show my parents that I'm not playing around, that I'm working hard, being a good example for my siblings."
19-year-old Amelia Walters from the University of Melbourne also told VICE that she felt young Australian students faced many external pressures that were leading to a widespread decline in mental health. "It's a story of disconnection and disintegration, where we as young students are spreading ourselves across so many different areas of our lives—work, extracurricular, in our academic pursuits—because the future is so unknown and we feel so much more pressure to be prepared for that," she says. "The separation of ourselves across too many different fields means we are not only overwhelmed by academic pressures, but also losing a sense of self. And therefore a sense of wellbeing."
She said that while increasing awareness of mental health services among young people was encouraging, it clearly wasn't enough. "One aspect of the survey results that really struck me is that there is a great awareness of the mental health support systems that a young person can access but hardly any young people are accessing them....At university in an environment where we're pitted against each other, where we assume everyone else is succeeding and coping better than ourselves, we often silence those warning signs that we aren't doing as well as we could be. Because we are trying to present ourselves as doing well and succeeding, we don't feel able to put our hands up and say we're not okay."
Headspace advises young people struggling with their mental health while at uni can help manage stress by preparing a study plan, eating well, staying socially connected, and avoiding alcohol and drugs as a means to manage stress and anxiety. More tips can be found on their website, and Headspace encourages all young people seeking help for a mental health problem to contact them.
If you're struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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More mental health on VICE:
Depression Steals Your Soul and Then it Takes Your Friends
Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Anxiety Disorder
Therapists Explain How Cartoons Affect Your Mental Health
Meeting the People Who Make Mental Health Storylines On TV Look Realistic