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Written By

Mykala Wright


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

9 September 2021

R U OK? Day

Studying at university is often an exciting and promising time. But for many, the social and academic pressures that come with higher education can quickly become overwhelming.

This Thursday, September 9, marks R U OK? Day – a day that reminds us to check in and connect with the people around us. As we continue to have conversations about mental health, it is important that we recognise the unique challenges the students in our lives may be facing.

Australian universities are experiencing a surge in students reporting mental health issues, largely in part due to financial stressors, feelings of isolation and self-doubt, and uncertainty about the future and career outcomes. JCU PhD student Eileen Siddins is on a mission to improve the ways universities are addressing student wellbeing, both inside and outside of the classroom.

“Like many others, I experienced challenges as both an undergraduate and postgraduate student. When I was working as a lecturer and a tutor, I remember significant moments when I was approached by students to discuss their mental health,” Eileen says. “I started to think about ways that students could build up their resilience and learn how to manage different hardships they come across. But strategies to promote wellbeing can’t be effective or sustainable unless we understand and represent the students’ opinions on the matter.”

Through her research, Eileen has developed a wellbeing needs assessment that works as an evidence base for educators to use when they are looking to support their students’ mental health.

“Using an online survey and semi-structured interviews, I asked students to give their opinions about their university experience, how their experiences influence their wellbeing, how they cope with challenges, and their thoughts on how to enhance student wellbeing through higher education,” she says.

Eileen says the research was not about identifying students’ compromised mental health. Instead, it sought to pinpoint areas for change within the university structure that would positively impact student wellbeing and resilience.

“By providing a wellbeing needs assessment, I hope that members of the university and mental health communities will further recognise the benefits of interventions that are uniquely tailored to students disciplinary and educational needs.”

PhD student Eileen Siddins.
An animation of an Australian university with students standing out the front.
Left: PhD student Eileen Siddins. Right: An animation of an Australian university created for Eileen’s website. Credit: Chun Wong and Mathew Currie.

The creative industries

Eileen’s research specifically focused on students studying digital media, fine arts, and graphic and interactive design.

“Previous research addresses the mental health of students studying disciplines like law, medicine and the performing arts. My research contributes to the growing discussion about student wellbeing by considering the challenges visual art undergraduates experience and how their unique strengths can be used to mitigate such challenges,” she says.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to help students thrive at university. Each cohort is different, so educational strategies that enhance student wellbeing might be more effective if they are designed to accommodate these differences.”

Visual art students encounter various challenges; some that transpire as a consequence of engaging in higher education, and others that are a result of stressors associated with the pursuit of a career in the creative industries. For example, several themes emerged from Eileen’s research, including financial hardship while studying; difficulty striking balance between life, work and university; vulnerability when receiving judgement or criticism of art; devaluing social perspectives of the creative industries; and uncertainty about securing sustainable employment.

“The creative industries are described as precarious, and research like mine—and studies from movements like the Mentally Healthy group—show us that there are various industry-related challenges that students can be worried about,” Eileen says.

“To realise positive and meaningful change, we need to look at how we are supporting students’ agency, and their values within their university and broader art community as well,” she says. “I think this requires a team effort from the students and members of university, mental health and creative communities.”

An animation created for Eileen's website.

Credit: Chun Wong and Mathew Currie.

Supporting students for success

For many people, learning how to build resilience in a classroom or practicing yoga outside of it can be a great way to relieve stress or improve mental health. But these approaches are not universally effective. In fact, Eileen’s research shows us that it is important to consider individual students’ learning motivations before identifying interventions that may benefit them.

“Those strategies have a very important role and can be effective for some, but they don’t always align with what students want from their education. Many, if not most students, are at uni to be equipped to work in their field. In my research, participants were often motivated by their creative practice and by getting a job in their creative field,” she says.

“This is an opportunity for educators and key stakeholders to consider how wellbeing can be promoted in ways that align with students’ disciplinary motivations.”

Some of the changes proposed by students seemed simple. For example, participants suggested that assessment criteria be more structured and less ambiguous.  However, as Eileen points out, these suggestions grow complex when we begin to consider the context of creative learning environments. Arts educators often purposefully include ambiguity to encourage creative exploration. But for students, this type of teaching needs to be used in an environment where they trust the individual mentorship of their lecturer or tutor.

“If we consider different teaching conditions for some Australian universities, studio-based models have been replaced by more standardised and impersonal classes, and students have limited contact with their time-poor educators. So, this student recommendation—to ensure assessment criteria isn’t so ambiguous—could involve broader change relating to creative arts curriculum, the structure of university education, and educators’ working conditions," she says.

“It’s important for us to protect the wellbeing of our university staff too. Hence, the need for strong leadership and the collaborative efforts of the entire university community.”

“Tackling the wicked problem of student mental health requires change that can be messy or difficult, but whatever risks and efforts that are required, I think that they are far exceeded by the consequential benefits to our communities.”

PhD student Eileen Siddins

An animation of Eileen’s key research findings.

Credit: Chun Wong and Mathew Currie.

Lockdown lows and woes

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt teaching and learning at universities across Australia, it is more important than ever that we work to protect the mental health and wellbeing of students.

“The responses I got from students and members of the visual art community indicated that they viewed the topic of student mental health as important, and these conversations happened pre-COVID,” Eileen says. “The topic has become even more prominent as students continue to experience changes to their higher education as we respond to the pandemic.”

Australian university students are experiencing heightened financial and psychological stress due to COVID-19. Lockdowns across the country have meant on-campus learning has been reduced or suspended entirely, and social events are being postponed or cancelled. Restrictions have caused significant loss of employment throughout the creative industries, driving the competitiveness of job hunting.

“This increases the need for visual art students to learn more about how they can cope with hardship and manage their wellbeing,” Eileen says. “University students are our future thinkers and leaders. If students are equipped with strategies that protect and enhance their wellbeing, they may be more likely to thrive and benefit their industry and society.”

“At university, it’s easy to get caught up in our study or other commitments and we forget to seriously check if our own wellbeing tank is running dry,” she says. “Take this R U OK? Day as the chance to consider how you can top up the tank with a bit of self-kindness. Go ahead, I give you permission!”

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