Shining a spotlight on student health and wellbeing

The Towards a Health Promoting University report has been released.

A report delving into the health and wellbeing of university students that aims to help Australian universities enhance student experiences and academic outcomes has been released.

The Towards a Health Promoting University project, conducted by University of Melbourne researchers in partnership with the Bupa Health Foundation, investigates issues that affect students’ mental health and wellbeing with a view to informing health promotion and intervention.

The report provides an important benchmark of student mental health for the Australian tertiary education sector prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report found that:

  • One in three students reported experiencing stressors at university, which were often associated with poorer mental health.
  • Overall, poor mental health is associated with lower academic performance.
  • International students and local students both experience similar challenges to their mental health and wellbeing, however international students are less aware of health services and are accessing health services less often than local students
  • Difficulties for international students might also be compounded by fewer social supports, acculturative stress, English language difficulties and higher levels of discrimination.

Lead Investigator Professor Lena Sanci, from the Melbourne Medical School Department of General Practice, said the aim of the research was to understand how Australian universities can best promote student health and wellbeing by looking into impacts on academic and mental health outcomes.

“The main objective of the study was to capture current trends in student health and wellbeing, and to indicate potential areas for intervention to maximise health, wellbeing and academic outcomes for university students,” Professor Sanci said.

“The findings and recommendations from our study build on similar studies in other countries and demonstrate the need for universities to develop comprehensive student mental health and wellbeing strategies. Evidence suggests we need to improve accessibility and acceptability of existing services, develop research capacity to support policy development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and develop systems that support targeted responses to students who are at risk of, or are experiencing mental, health decline.”

Annette Schmiede, Executive Leader of the Bupa Health Foundation, said: “This very successful partnership with the University of Melbourne and the Bupa Health Foundation has strengthened the evidence base to help direct resources and strategies to target vulnerable students, particularly international students. This research is now accessible to the wider higher education sector to ensure the best possible health and academic outcomes for all students.”

University of Melbourne Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Student Life) and Deputy Provost Professor Kerri-Lee Krause said the report, the first of its kind and scale, provides important new insights into student wellbeing and mental health for the tertiary education sector.

“I congratulate Lena and her team on this ground-breaking research, which represents some of the best data in relation to student mental health and wellbeing in Australia and will help inform leading practice across the entire sector,” Professor Krause said.

“Student wellbeing and mental health has always been a major focus for the University of Melbourne. The University is committed to providing a safe and supportive environment for students and offers a range of free and easily accessible support services, including a health promotion program, Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), a medical service, Chaplaincy, financial aid, student housing, careers guidance, academic skills support, and our Safer Community Program, which provides support and advice about inappropriate, concerning or threatening behaviour.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty and stress for many students and we have been working on ways to improve and increase the available support services.

“This includes the introduction of a new after-hours mental health crisis support service and increasing resources for CAPS to meet demand. Together, these services mean students are able to get support any time and any day. University staff have also been actively reaching out to students who are most likely to face very challenging circumstances to support them through the transition to online learning and to access the University’s health and wellbeing services.

“We will continue work on improving how we support our students’ wellbeing in the years ahead. The findings outlined in this report will help us to proactively address these issues and to continue to foster a culture at the University that promotes help-seeking behaviour.”

A summary report from the Towards a Health Promoting University study can be found here.