We need to do more to prepare our high school students for tertiary study –psychologically, academically and in terms of career choices – say student leaders, healthcare providers and mental health advocates.

The financial stress on students and a high rate of non-completion of qualifications are shaping up as the focus of opposition election campaigning around tertiary education.

New Zealand First is going into the election with a policy of a non-means tested universal living allowance for students along with better careers advice and workforce planning. The Greens want to cap and then progressively reduce student fees, while Labour has a policy of three years’ free post-secondary education. Labour also wants to professionalise the careers advice in schools, at a cost of up to $30 million a year, and provide youth health services in schools.

The opposition parties are not alone in questioning both how well we support students in choosing qualifications and in managing their mental health.

Student health services ‘need to be creative and clever’

As well as the election season, it is now is one of the “peak seasons” for student health providers, as exams loom and winter illnesses hit.

“If you look at our workload it is like a camel’s back and we are right at the peak of it,” says Dr Kim Maiai, Director of Student Health Services at Otago University.

“We try and be as clever as we can, but demand will always outstrip our ability to supply.”

We have been fortunate enough to recruit staff with huge experience in emergency psych services and assessments

Maiai says student health services increasingly have to be clever and creative to try and meet the demands placed on them, including by students presenting with mental health issues.

“Over the last couple of years we have employed psychiatric nurses and occupational therapists who work at the front door responding to student need and just trying to be a bit cleverer about how we respond to that need, but we still struggle to meet the demand because it is all compressed into a semester.

“We have been fortunate enough to recruit staff with huge experience in emergency psych services and assessments.”

Like many other student health services, Otago caps the number of counselling sessions a student can receive at six – although Maiai points out it is not a ‘hard and fast’ rule and students can return for further sessions if they find themselves struggling again.

“We cannot, with the best will in the world, fully meet the demand,” he says. “There’s a lot of students down here and we have finite resources. We have to be careful with those resources and make sure that, to the best of our ability, we make services available to as many students as possible.

“I guess my job is to make sure that everybody gets a fair piece of the pie when it comes to services. We are acutely aware that if a young person asks for help that we want to do our best to respond to that, because not responding to someone looking for help is, I think, the worst message that a young person can receive.”

Auckland University now has a “Wellbeing Educator” charged with delivering a student wellbeing programme and training staff on how to help students in distress.

“We have also implemented a Wellbeing Programme which delivers targeted messages at key times .. to help students adjust to study and the pressures it entails,” a University spokesperson said.

The University says this increased awareness may be contributing to the increase in demand for student health services it has seen.

More awareness or more illness?
Maiai also agrees that it is hard to say whether more students are experiencing mental health issues, or whether they are just more likely to seek help due to an increased awareness and willingness to talk, thanks in part to “trailblazers like Sir John Kirwan”.

But NZUSA president Jonathan Gee thinks that, while there is increased awareness and discussion, there is probably also an actual increase in the number of students struggling with mental health.

New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is the highest in the developed world

“In universities, as in society in general, we are trying to build this better conversation around mental health, that it’s not something we sweep under the carpet and moving away from that whole kiwi culture of ‘she’ll be right’ sort of stuff,” he says.

“But I think I would say, though, that there is probably an actual increase to it. As I mentioned before; the intensity of these mental health pressures, the culture of expectation, the housing crisis – it’s very hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when all that stuff is happening. The future of work is uncertain now too.

“So, yes, we are getting a better picture but there is also a real increase in terms of the numbers suffering from societal pressures.”

It would be surprising if there wasn’t an increase in the number of students presenting with mental health problems, given this week’s UNICEF report showing New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is the highest in the developed world.

Labour’s policy of youth health services in schools would help or refer high school students with mental health issues.

Gee says there needs to be mental health education for all high school students as part of the curriculum, and young Auckland mental health campaigner Lucy McSweeney is currently collecting signatures for a petition calling for compulsory mental health education in schools.

Better careers advice would lessen the stress

Gee agrees that this time of year is a stressful time for students – but he says there is also the “six week dip” for new students when the excitement wears off, the reality of assignments hit and they “start questioning ‘oh, is this the course of study I want to do?'”.

He says there is “a huge inadequacy of careers advice and guidance for students at high school level,” and this adds to the stress on students because of the expectations placed on them.

“Fees are so expensive now, cost of living has gone up. The cost of failure is high for a lot of students, and I think that creates a lot of mental health issues.

Gee says the careers advice in our schools “is not professionalised, it’s inconsistent across schools, and a lot of the information that the students receive through that careers advice is from the marketing departments of universities, not objective information from government departments around graduate outcomes and stuff like that.”

He hopes the decision to transfer Careers New Zealand’s functions to the Tertiary Education Commission, which takes effect at the start of next month, will result in an improvement.  The Government says will enable better co-ordination with schools on the skill needs of the labour market.

But Labour says this is not enough. It wants trained careers advisers in every high school, developing a detailed career plan for every student at an annual cost of $30 million a year once fully operational.

The academic shock

Even if students are confident that they have made the right choice the demands of tertiary study can come as a shock, and there are questions about how well high school and NCEA prepares them.

I think University is a more stressful place than it used to be and I think the structure of the syllabus may have contributed

“It depends on the student, but as a generality I think the undergraduate students that I see coming through the door, I think school in many ways doesn’t prepare students that well for independent, self-directed learning,” says Maiai.

“I think maybe we could look at that aspect a little more clearly.”

He says the structure of university courses, which have moved closer to an American “serial assessment” style may also increase the stress on students.  

“I think University is a more stressful place than it used to be and I think the structure of the syllabus may have contributed, and certainly there’s been quite a bit of work done in various universities on course design and how that impacts on students,” he says.

“If you had an incessant schedule of low value assessments serially which require large amounts of work I guess there’s a certain amount of stress related with that.”

One thing Maiai doesn’t agree with is the argument that today’s students are lacking in resilience due to over-protective “helicopter parenting”.

“I would say that, on the whole, students deal with the challenges far better than as a 50 year old male I would. If I was thrown into that situation I think I would find it very challenging. So I think it is a little bit rich to say they lack resilience, because I see a lot of resilience being displayed, a lot of consideration of friends, ‘our better selves’ I see displayed by students every day.

“I think there is a lot of rhetoric about this, and certainly there is a lot of students that do need help, and they are struggling with typical human problems.”

Where to get help:

– Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (24/7), Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7), text free to 234 (8am-midnight) or live chat (7pm-11pm)

– Kidsline: 0800 54 37 54 (24/7; Kidsline Buddies available 4pm-9pm)

– Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 TAUTOKO / 0508 828 865 (24/7)

– What’s Up: 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 942 8787 (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends) or live chat (5pm-10pm)

– Healthline: 0800 611 116 (24/7)

– Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

– Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 or text free to 4202 (24/7)

– If you feel you or someone you know is at immediate risk, call 111.

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