Each year, over 200,000 university students aged 18-25 years old will experience mental ill health.

Young people have the highest prevalence of mental health disorders or behavioural conditions of all age groups. Seventy-five per cent of mental disorders emerge for the first time before the age of 24 years, which is the time when a large proportion of young Australians enrol in tertiary education.

Mental ill health is often an outcome of individuals’ experiences with various psychological stressors encountered in social and environmental ‘settings’. Tertiary education settings can be better utilised to improve the mental health of their students. These settings are well-placed to engage in primary and secondary prevention as well as in facilitating access to tertiary interventions.

Improving the mental health of young people could result in substantial social, economic, educational, and health benefits for many young people, their families, and the community.

The purpose of this policy evidence brief is to:

  • identify evidence-based interventions in tertiary education settings that can effectively help young people to manage stress and improve their mental health and lifelong outcomes; and
  • outline policy options to address the stress and mental health concerns of young people to help young people to develop healthy coping strategies to manage unavoidable life stressors.

Even though this brief’s goal was to present balanced evidence for tertiary education settings that include both higher education and vocational education and training (VET), the majority of the limited available evidence has focused on higher education students, and evidence for VET students is scarce.

In this policy evidence brief, we focus on policy options that are relevant to health policy. However, we acknowledge that improving students’ mental health and wellbeing requires action from the ‘whole system’, including tertiary education providers, and state and local government departments and sectors. Furthermore, the policy options presented in this policy evidence brief cannot address the identified challenges in isolation. These options need to be implemented as a part of a whole-system approach.

Policy options

The policy options included the following:

  • Establishing a regular, standardised, and monitored national data collection on the state of tertiary students’ mental health and wellbeing to enable evidence-informed and data-driven decision making.
  • Investing in research related to tertiary students’ mental health needs and mental health promotion in tertiary education settings.
  • Increasing support for tertiary education settings to implement and evaluate appropriate evidence-based interventions aimed at improving students’ mental health and wellbeing and to create teaching and learning environments that enhance students’ mental health and wellbeing.
  • Increasing mental health awareness and literacy among students and staff members, especially teaching staff, in tertiary education settings.
  • Investing in the development and resourcing of action/implementation plans for universities across Australia to implement A Framework for Promoting Student Mental Wellbeing in Universities and the Australian University Student Mental Health Framework.
  • Supporting the development of an Australian VET students’ mental health framework and accompanying implementation plan.

Increasing cross-sectoral collaboration between the Department of Health and the Department of Education, Skills and Employment to develop and implement national policies across health and education sectors; this would acknowledge tertiary students’ mental health needs and the tertiary education sector as an important partner in the development and delivery of mental health initiatives.

Authors

Bo Klepac Pogrmilovic
Research Fellow, The Mitchell Institute
Melinda Craike
Associate Professor of Physical Activity and Health
Michaela Pascoe
Senior Research Fellow
Sarah Dash
Postdoctoral research fellow
Alex Parker
Executive Director, Institute for Health & Sport
Rosemary Calder
Professor of Health Policy, Mitchell Institute