Where’s Your Head At: A Portrait of UNSW’s Mental Health Policies

By Stella Ladikos

What words come to mind when you think of mental health?

Depression? Anxiety? Stress? Bipolar?

Whilst I didn’t ask you to list mental health disorders, it is totally reasonable that you may have thought of those words.

In fact, after I surveyed a handful of students from different faculties at UNSW, almost half of respondents used the word “depression” when prompted with this question, followed closely by “anxiety”.

Although society has come a long way with mental health literacy and awareness, the concept of “mental health” is still largely misunderstood. It is still attributed to notions of illness and vulnerability. I’ll tell you something right now: all of us engage with our mental health every day, regardless of if you have been diagnosed with a disorder.

Let’s think about it this way. If you were to think of the term “physical health”, what words would you use? Strength? Eating well? Staying fit?

In this instance, why don’t we think of a broken leg, the flu, cancer or hearing loss? We simply don’t visualise “physical health” in the same way we do “mental health.”

Physical health = good. Mental health = bad.

This is the gap that I am interested in. This is the reason why I have been volunteering with headspace for the past three years, planning and implementing community projects. It’s why I chose to study an online Certificate of Mental Health alongside my Bachelor of Media, and acts as the driving force behind running an entire mental health awareness month in my final year of high school. I want to be part of a “revolution” with the aim to change society’s perception of mental health and emphasise how uneducated and ignorant we can be.

I want to present you with two pieces of information that changed my perception of mental health and fuelled my passion to do what I do today. The first is merely a definition from the World Health Organisation, however I think it beautifully encapsulates what mental health is (and in such a positive light):

“Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

This second piece of research was presented in my first Mental Health First Aid Training, which compares the debilitating effects of mental and physical illnesses. According to their findings, mild depression is the same feeling as having the common cold, while moderate depression is said to be similar to severe hearing loss. On the most severe end of the spectrum, severe depression is as debilitating as disseminated breast cancer. Severe schizophrenia is as debilitating as severe dementia or stroke.

But, being a university student, it is most useful to focus on the university context and how we can achieve greater understanding, awareness and mental health literacy on campus.

One such idea I heard was at UNSW’s Student Minds Conference in 2016, where they proposed that mental health education should be integrated into particular areas of our learning. Essentially, it could be embedded into assessments, or in the introduction of all courses. For example, an assessment to analyse a media campaign becomes an assessment to analyse a mental health campaign.

Most survey respondents agreed with this proposal, believing that it would be “of enormous help as I imagine that many students, as well as myself, do not really understand what mental health is”.

Other respondents expressed that the integration of this education into an already existing course would not take away from its learning outcomes, but rather it would “supplement” their learning and add a sense of “relevancy”.

A fraction of respondents opposed this model, believing that it would add unnecessary content and pressure and would bring up lived personal and traumatic experiences. Rather than integrating education into university syllabi, one respondent suggested, “extra mental health education within high school … is definitely needed”. Whilst I do agree with this point (and am actually involved in this through presenting at school visits through headspace), I also believe that something drastic needs to be done in universities.

We are fortunate at UNSW to have a range of services such as Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the Psychology Clinic and a GP. A whopping 74% of students that I surveyed were unaware that we have a Counselling and Psychological service on campus, as “there is little awareness of the help that UNSW offers.”

One survey respondent suggested that the university advertise the available services “in a more open and broad way, bringing these issues to the forefront of our university culture.”  An issue that repeatedly came up was the fact that CAPS is insufficiently staffed to meet all students’ needs and that it is difficult to get an appointment.

I actually work at CAPS as a receptionist, and yes, I have had to turn back people in need simply because there are insufficient spots available. This is something staff members cannot remedy, without increased funding to employ extra staff members.

As well as services offered by the university, there are also a number of student-run initiatives available, such as Student Minds (which I also volunteer with). As a volunteer or member of Student Minds, you gain access to Mental Health First Aid and Literacy training as well as opportunities to learn more about mental health, meet like-minded passionate people and be the student voice of mental health at UNSW.

Those who are aware of the importance of mental health education in a university context suggested some creative and plausible ideas. Unless the University Board conducts a thorough investigation into mental health on campus and seeks student input, these ideas will never be heard.

One respondent explored the idea of better equipping university lecturers and tutors with adequate and accredited training:

“A large positive difference can be made to mental health outcomes by having people who interact with students on a weekly basis even vaguely looking out for them,” they said.

“Preparing tutors with information about what campus services are available and how to approach students with that kind of information off the cuff would be hugely valuable.”

Looking back on my first tutorials for this semester, my psychology tutor (surprise, surprise!) was the only tutor to even mention the existence of CAPS and how we can access it.

How many of you remember the ELISE quiz that we had to pass by week 5 in our first year, in order to enrol in session two? Whilst plagiarism and learning how to utilise the library is super important, so is our mental health. Interestingly enough, the idea of creating a compulsory “ELISE-style” quiz on mental health was brought up at the Student Minds Conference and in my survey responses. I imagine that such a program would inform new students on the services that UNSW offers for mental wellbeing but would also get people thinking more about looking after their mental state from the get-go.

I think that’s something we can all get behind. Together, we must acknowledge the existence of stigma in society, work together to break it down and urge university leaders (and students!) to be change-makers.

We are the only way forward.