Forming connections early
Fostering relationships between universities and high school students could take many forms, including university staff mentoring high school students.
The short mentoring stints could not only boost students’ confidence in being able to attend university, but also establish a foundation for a healthier and more productive time when they do go on to tertiary education.
“Having a sense of knowing and feeling less alien can be very powerful for a student,” Beryl says.
“It can reduce anxiety and increase engagement, helping students to be curious and creative.”
Dr Beryl Buckby
The Inaugural Australasian Mental Health and Higher Education Conference aims to promote discussion of the nature and future of mental health issues in higher education. The 2017 conference covered a range of themes, including community links and transitions, mental health research, policy and institutional response and ways forward.
“We do have a lot of struggling people at university,” Beryl says. “We don’t always see them, but they are walking around with this burden. In the context of higher education, we know staff are under huge pressure and students’ workloads are ginormous. You put all of that together and what we’re having is poor productivity.”
Poor productivity can manifest in two ways: presenteeism and absenteeism. Beryl says presenteeism is when students are frightened about dropping out of a course, so they will attend class even when they are not functionally well or are working below their potential. Absenteeism is when students who are not coping do not attend class, which can lead to further stress due to disruptions in study or research.
“It goes to the completion of degrees and the retention of students,” Beryl says. “Students can get so far behind and the workload to catch up is overwhelming. Students can break.”
Beryl says staff at universities can also suffer poor mental health due to burning the candle at both ends.
“We’re concerned about how we look after students and how we look after our staff,” she says. “In terms of staff, it is about getting the time to be a productive person. They are under pressure to juggle research output as well as achieving excellence in teaching.”
Beryl says people can have difficulty identifying when someone is struggling and they may also have trouble understanding their circumstances. While support services are available, some students may not access them because they are afraid of being stigmatised. Others may become overtly cynical about university and disillusioned with study.
“You are in a space where you feel you are the worst person in the world and other people don’t understand,” Beryl says. “You might be worried other people will think you’re being lazy because you can’t keep up. Student equity and wellbeing programs are doing a really good job, but sometimes when a student is in a bad place they want to avoid university because they feel they will be compromised when they go there.”
The conference featured a number of keynote speakers including Dr Benjamin Veness, Professor Eóin Killackey, Professor Patricia Dudgeon, Dr Jan Orman, Mary O’Hagan and Jeremy Audas.
“There is quite a gap around understanding mental health in the context of higher education,” Beryl says. “It is timely that we start to address some of these issues.”