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June 4, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Under Pressure

Mental health is a topic that most of us find hard to understand and even harder to talk about. But as the pressures faced by the modern student increase every year, the lines for Victoria’s Student Counselling Services just keep getting longer. With that in mind, Patrick Hunn takes a closer look at whether the kids really are all right.

How are you feeling? Okay, or a little bit gloomy? You could be forgiven for tending towards the latter. Being a student isn’t a great time for a lot of people in many ways. If you’re living in a damp fl at with people you don’t like, eating crap and having a small panic attack over that French translation you have to get done by tomorrow morning, it isn’t extraordinarily odd that your mental health might take a bit of a dive. Of course, Beyoncé could serenade you all day and you might still be filled with rancid nihilist bile. For whatever reason you are feeling a little bit beleaguered, it is inarguably important that there are avenues of assistance for such situations. 47 per cent of New Zealanders, a Ministry of Health study conducted in 2006 found, will experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lives. More specifically, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world.

At Victoria, Student Health Services is the first port of call for many people feeling a bit crap. However, a recent visit to the service left one student unnerved and distressed. “Like most students, I’ve had a lot going on lately—assignments due and upcoming tests, but on top of that I was dealing with some family issues and a conflict at work.” Reaching the limits of her stress tolerance, the student went to Student Health Services and managed to see a Duty Counsellor within half an hour.

“That appointment was great in dealing with the surface issue of contacting my lecturer to let him know I wouldn’t be sitting the test the next day.”

However, when the student tried to book a follow-up appointment, presumably because she was interested in working on the long-term causes of her anxiety, she was surprised to find that “the next available appointment was in two months and I thought to myself, ‘How is that going to help me?’” How, indeed.

The Student Counselling Service provides free consultations to all domestic and NZAid students. International students are charged for counselling (even though they pay the same student services levy as everyone else; regardless of how the Service is funded, you’d expect that, given the importance of the Counselling Service, it should have a universal reach.) The Service describes its function as providing “quality short-term counselling support for students, who may bring to discuss any issues that are impacting on their studies”.

The “short-term” qualifier is evidently the important thing here. If the support students require or prefer is more intensive in nature, then the counsellor can discuss with students the possibility of a referral elsewhere. The Service points out in gentle language that problems which cannot be treated in one or a small number of sessions will eventually be referred out of campus.

Kent Smith is a Student Health Counsellor and Counselling Services Assistant Manager who has worked at the Service since 2003. Smith says that working with students is something of a privilege, as he continues his own learning by having an active interest in research. Smith’s area of interest coincides neatly with what one would expect to encounter in student health, namely: developmental processes and anxiety-related issues, as well as the transition from study to work.

Smith points out that the Service is “not a mental-health service, but we do a lot of work in mental health,” and offers a succinct explanation of why offering a counselling programme is important for a tertiary institution.

“It’s fair to say that the bulk of students who come to university are quite functional, but equally, students who have been functional might not be functional, given a number of circumstances—stress, crisis, trauma, family, development, or perhaps historic trauma. Then there are the things people have brought here. So these things might have existed and you come to an institution like this and so stress, assessment, socialisation, comparison to others, development of the individual, and suddenly they manifest differently here.”

In other words, the effect that transitioning to life at university has is hopelessly difficult to predict, and for a lot of people, the experience isn’t a terribly good one.

Like anything, recognising a problem is a towering obstacle to eventual wellbeing. The university environment is particularly difficult in this regard; I might be stressed about my workload, but then everyone is presumably dealing with the same thing. Smith has a sort of psychological litmus test for those in doubt.

“The individual must ask themselves, ‘Is my energy and my way of being a problem or is it not a problem?’ But equally it could be the community, family or friends of the individual as well saying, ‘you’ve changed’ or ‘something is not working as it used to.’ You could be entering a path of drugs, alcohol or addiction.”

The demands put on the Service continue to grow every year. The beginning of 2013 recorded the largest increase of new patients in the Service’s history.

Even so, Smith says, “We haven’t grown in terms of numbers of people working in two or three years.” He’s really rather Zen about it, though: “Would it be helpful to have more numbers? Potentially, but I think there’s always going to be more demand than supply.”

Tied to this is the fact that Smith also isn’t totally comfortable with the idea that this generation is inherently more unwell than the ones that preceded it. “The political nature of education and the growth in people saying ‘I’ll go and see a counsellor’ has created a huge growth [in people seeking help]. There are the John Kirwans of this world… who are out there saying it’s okay to ask for help… so you’ve got all this stuff mushrooming in the context of the New Zealand mental-health system which is under-resourced, underfunded, but having huge demand.”

Clearly, young people are contending with things that their parents never had to: a topic which inflames Smith’s temper in the most deliciously righteous way.

“I work with lots of cynical and angry students… the bastards have ground them down. That’s a bit of a shame.”

While it isn’t clear who “the bastards” are, the sentiment is one familiar to many students.

“…Student Loans, money, working, studying their arses off. They don’t have time to do any of that shit, whereas in our day we’d work summer, study the rest of the time. People want to get higher grades, [but] someone somewhere down the line has given students a bit of false information about what the real world out there looks like, and it isn’t just about A-grades. If you don’t bring more than an A-grade you ain’t gonna get a job.” His reasoning here is really quite indisputable.

Tertiary education in this country does not work in the same way that it did for our parents’ generation, after all. While students today have a wholly different and more complex set of obstacles to wrangle with, the academic expectations they have upon them remain the same. It certainly doesn’t help that the value of tertiary education is constantly put into question. Today, the stakes are both higher and more nebulously defined. It shouldn’t be surprising that students are frequently sent careering into something of a stress-spiral.

Smith doesn’t think that there is a “silver bullet” for a stress-free life. He does, however, note that people simply don’t exercise the way they used to, and that a lot of different symptoms come from physical inactivity. He also points to the way in which social media is used: a lot of issues with sleep deprivation come from long Facebook sessions shortly before bedtime, for instance. What it really comes down to, one supposes, is consuming all things in moderation. Which is great advice, but difficult to implement when season four of Arrested Development comes out all at once (oh my God).

The fact that professional, knowledgeable people with empathy like Kent Smith are on hand is a wonderfully reassuring thing. The capacity of the Service, however, seems to be mismatched to its purported duty. Currently, it seems as if the role of the Service is to act as a sort of triage centre that offers initial treatment before referring students elsewhere (although if your need is desperate you can count on receiving help). This is understandable and probably completely acceptable, but being told that you have to wait weeks for an appointment isn’t. Of course, these waiting times are in-line with normal practice off-campus, but the nature of university seems to result in health issues that are explosive and immediate in nature. Smith argues that the best thing to do in many instances isn’t to seek therapeutic help while you’re in the climactic throes of your distress. But if someone has a test tomorrow and they can’t sleep, that isn’t what they’ll want to hear. Deadlines aren’t good for you—perhaps the answer is to ban essays.

 

What does mental illness look like?

Kent Smith on…

Depression

“My energy doesn’t allow me to be where I might find my normal level to be. I find that I am in isolation from people, losing interest in things that I’ve been historically interested in, an inability to get out of bed. A lot of ‘not doing’. Not exercising or seeing family and friends.”

Anxiety

“I should have been there. What if I can’t do that? What if I can’t make friends? What if my boyfriend/girlfriend leaves me? Anxiety is taking yourself away from the present moment and having a head experience which becomes physical in the form of panic. Fear of failing is common for a lot of people at university—on the other end of the spectrum, it isn’t uncommon to have a fear of success, where people really don’t know what they’ll do if they are as successful as they hope they will be.”

Stress

“Stress is a reaction to an experience that is distressing and overwhelming but I haven’t really got a way to contend with it. Stress is normal. I’m contending with what I’m reacting to and I’ve got some trust in myself that I can actually manage it. Procrastination and burning out are the results of ongoing and unmanaged stress. Unmanaged stress is what precipitates anxiety. If stress can be managed within the boundaries of wellbeing, potentially it can help us avoid issues like anxiety and depression.”

When should you be concerned?

Essentially, when you experience a feeling of ongoing distress that you don’t feel you can alter or are in anyway in control of. Student Health Services can be contacted by email at counsellingservice@vuw.ac.nz, or by phone:

– Kelburn Campus: (04) 463 5310
– Te Aro Campus: (04) 463 5310
– Karori Campus: (04) 463 5310
– Pipitea Campus: (04) 463 7474

 

Additional reporting by Phillipa Webb

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