Tertiary student mental health: The Productivity Commission’s Report and Deakin’s Student Mental Health & Wellbeing Strategy

Professor Tony LaMontagne, Director of the Institute's Determinants of Health research domain, and Karen Stuart, Manager Deakin University's Counselling and Psychological Support (Burwood) discuss the recent Productivity Commission's Inquiry Report on Mental Health and how Deakin's ongoing activities in student mental health and wellbeing measure up to the landmark Report's findings and recommendations.

Written by Professor Anthony D LaMontagne and Karen Stuart Deakin University

The mental health of university students has featured in the recently-released Productivity Commission’s (PC) Inquiry Report on Mental Health. Section 6.2 is entitled ‘Supporting People in Tertiary Education’. The report provides a sobering review of numerous surveys and other studies documenting higher levels of distress and other mental health problems among university and VET (Vocational Education and Training) students, as well as apprentices compared to non-students of comparable ages. Recognised risk factors are outlined, with specific detail for some groups such as international students and apprentices. Accordingly, Recommendation 6 of the Report is ‘To support the mental health of tertiary students’ (Volume 1, page 65). The report further states, ‘The accountability of tertiary education providers should be strengthened with expanded mental health support to their students, including international students.’ 

Specific suggestions include expanding online mental health services, improving health insurance cover for international students for mental health services, and requiring all tertiary institutions to have a student mental health and wellbeing strategy.

Student mental health and wellbeing has been an active area of policy and practice development at Deakin University for many years. It is of interest to consider Deakin’s on-going activities in relation to this landmark report’s findings and recommendations. Deakin measures up well. The University provides a wide array of prevention and psychosocial support programs and initiatives, including counselling and medical services, mental health awareness training and events, and online offerings. 

In 2019, Deakin adopted a whole of university approach to addressing student mental wellbeing by endorsing the ‘Student Mental Health & Wellbeing Strategy 2019—2022’. Based partly on Professor Tony LaMontagne’s ‘integrated approach’ of protect/promote/respond, the Strategic Plan aims to:

  1. identify, address and minimise risk factors that may affect students’ mental health (protect); 
  2. promote protective and preventative factors that influence mental health and wellbeing (promote); 
  3. ensure any student who experiences mental health problems is appropriately supported to continue to learn or to re-engage in study (respond).

The University has formed a diverse and collaborative taskforce to oversee the implementation and evaluation of the strategy. The taskforce’s role is to ensure implementation is consistent with a whole-of-university and student-centred approach, takes a holistic perspective that is evidenced-based and aims for real change. Action groups, consisting of professional and academic staff, and students as partners, have been formed to implement the action areas outlined in the strategy, with a focus on policy and procedures, curriculum and teaching, mental health promotion, and recognition and referral. The fifth action group is tasked with evaluating the impact of the strategy. A 2019 BUPA-funded study of student mental health literacy, mental health and wellbeing contributes important baseline information for the overall evaluation of the strategy. 

The implementation of this strategy represents a rich collaboration between professional and academic staff involving a diverse range of work areas including Deakin Student Life, Diversity and Inclusion, Deakin University Student Association (DUSA) and a number of the University’s Faculties.

In short, the University welcomes the findings of the PC Report, which validates and reinforces Deakin’s on-going efforts, and stands ready to work with governments to support the much-needed improvement in the Australian and Victorian mental health system. Professional and academic staff look forward to continued collaboration to progress the important work of optimising student mental health and wellbeing.  

Interested persons are welcome to contact Karen Stuart, Manager Deakin Counselling and Psychological Support (Burwood), who is leading the implementation of Deakin’s Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2019—2022.