Healthy Minds, Healthy Institutions

Posted by: Spiros Soulis, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Mental Health issues among the student population are likely to escalate” (Throunson, 2012).

Researchers have found mental illness among Australian university students is five times higher than the general population” (Kerin, 2010).

Recently there has been a lot of media as well as research around mental health and how it is impacting upon our student population. As a Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor and having worked with young people exhibiting mental illness I understand how vulnerable this group is and also the debilitating effect mental illness can have on being able to carry out day to day tasks.

A number of national studies have been conducted to gauge the impact of mental illness on the student population.  One recent study by Dr Helen Stallman, Clinical Psychologist, University of Queensland, screened more than 6,000 students and found 84 per cent were suffering psychological distress and almost one-fifth showed signs of mental illness bringing her to state that  “what we do know is that mental distress has a huge impact on student learning” (Kerin, 2010)

For a large number of teachers, mental illness is a great unknown, perhaps even an area of taboo.  As with the wider community, a stigma continues to be attached to it, despite that in the last two to three years, great inroads have been achieved to break down some of these misconceptions.  Mental illnesses have their major impact on disability and medical experts rate them amongst the most disabling illnesses (Stouthard et al, 1997) “Disability refers to the amount of disruption  a health problem causers to a person’s ability to study or work, look after themselves, and carry on relationships with family and friends” (Kelly, Kitchener & Jorm, 2010, p4)

So as educators and teachers what can we do?  The University of Western Sydney has an excellent website highlighting a number of resources for recognising and dealing with mental illness for both staff and students.  I found the following particularly useful:

Recognising students in trouble:

  • Progressive or sudden deterioration in attendance, attention, participation or quality of work
  • Progressive or rapid deterioration in appearance (sad, ill, unkempt, dramatic increase or decrease in weight)
  • Deterioration in social behaviour. Unusual behaviour or appearance
  • Dramatic swings in expression of feeling or social engagement
  • Flat or exaggerated emotional responses that are inappropriate to the situation
  • Concerns expressed by peers
  • Seemingly outrageous claims or personal statements
  • Inappropriate or untimely responses
  • Something odd or unpredictable about their manner which makes you feel concerned or uneasy.

Communicating with students who may be experiencing mental health difficulties:

  • make sufficient time to talk to the student
  • talk in a private space
  • have a non-judgemental attitude
  • make sure you are actively listening and taking in what the student is saying
  • use open-ended questions and clarify anything you are unsure of.

(Mental Health and Wellbeing, n.d.)

If you are witnessing some of the above in a student, I strongly suggest you get in contact with the counselling team at RMIT to seek advice and assistance.

Personally I have used the service of the Counselling team in a number of ways, namely:

  • delivering presentations to new as well as returning students at the beginning of the academic year and particularly during the exam period
  • Involving the counselling team in the School’s Planning Days as a way for them to run specific workshops and address certain concerns that may be arising from your student cohort
  • Using them as a referral service for students who may be “in trouble”.

If you wish to further extend your knowledge and skills around managing mental health in the classroom and workplace, consider enrolling in a Mental Health First Aid Course offered by RMIT through the DevelopMe portal (there is a course scheduled for October/November 2012).  “Mental health first aid is the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis, until appropriate professional treatment is received or until the crisis resolves” (Mental Health First Aid, 2012).

At the recent Student Mental Health Summit a Melbourne University student Melissa* described her experience with mental illness: “No one wants to admit they have a problem because of how people perceive it.  You can be anyone you like at university. You will be accepted for being a little bit weird or abnormal.  But when it comes to mental health the same social stigma is carried into the university environment.”

She said the key to tackling mental illness was to make students more aware of the issue. She said counselling services needed to be more widely promoted as most students didn’t know they existed.

*Melissa asked for her identity to be protected.


Kelly, C., Kitchener, B., & Jorm, A. (2010). Youth mental health first aid: a manual for adults assisting young people (2nd ed.). Melbourne: Orygen Youth Health Research Centre.

Kerin, L. (2010, November 23). Mental illness running high among uni students, The World Today, ABC News, Retrieved on September 6 2012 from

Mental Health First Aid, (2012). Retrieved on September 6, 2012 from

Throunson, A. (2012, August 10). Mental health issues among students to escalate, The Australian.

Mental Health and Wellbeing, (n.d.) Retrieved on September 6, 2012 from University Western Sydney, Student Support, Web site:

Stouthard, M., Essink-Bot, M., Bonsel, G., Barendregt, J., Kramer, P., Vande Water, H., Gunning-Schepers, L, & van der Mass, P. (1997). Disability Weights for Diseases in the Netherlands. Rotterdam: Erasmus University.

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