Mental Health Support for Young People During COVID-19 Not Enough

8 December 2020

Content Warning: COVID-19, mental illness and self-harm.

As the pandemic continues, attention is shifting towards how to best handle the physical and mental impacts of COVID-19. The mental health of young people has been identified as being particularly vulnerable to the impact of the virus and the associated measures taken to prevent its spread. But, what is being done to support them?

 Here at Melbourne, the University claims to have drastically widened its support for students’ mental health since the pandemic began. According to a University spokesperson:

 “The University has been actively reaching out to students who are most likely to face very challenging circumstances to support them with their transition to a virtual campus and online learning.”

 The most notable aspect of the University’s efforts has been an increase in the funding of services delivered through the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

 Orania Tokatlidis, the Clinical Head of CAPS, spoke to Farrago about the additional services. These include: increased counselling appointments, specialist multi-session programs, webinars and information packs which focus on specific issues arising from the pandemic, and most notably, an after-hours crisis support centre.  

 Tokatlidis said that while the number of students accessing counselling services has remained fairly steady, “people are coming with more complex issues”.

 Despite this, she explained that the diversification of services as a result of the pandemic has allowed CAPS to meet the demands of students.

 “It’s about having a variety of things [which can] be useful in different ways for different people.”

 While CAPS’s online booking system only allows students to book for that or the following day – calling the service will ensure students are able to book into the service. Triage facilities are also able to fast-track appointments depending on their urgency.

 Tokatlidis told Farrago that despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, there have been some positive outcomes.

 “The pandemic has made people realise that mental health is really under resourced in the community”. She also spoke about how services have become “more valued” and how institutions have found funding for services which have long been necessary.

 She highlighted the establishment of the after-hours crisis service as a notable positive outcome. It has been contacted 65 times in just over two months – around once per day.

 Tokatlidis said that the experience of the pandemic and providing services remotely would ensure CAPS takes “a better, blended model” into the future so as to remain more accessible to students. 

 However, it is not only up to CAPS to ensure students’ mental wellbeing.

 In an interim report for their university mental health framework, youth mental health organisation Orygen identified that “embedding student wellbeing within the university requires a whole university approach”. The report goes on to highlight that it is important to consider how “systems, structures, processes, policies, relationships and resources” contribute to students having a “mentally healthy university experience”.

 Tokatlidis also emphasised the necessity of “embedding good wellbeing practices in the whole university approach”, touching on exam and assessment timetabling and the Special Consideration program.

 The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) however, has identified a number of areas where they feel the University has inadequately considered student mental health during the pandemic.

 “Decisions like the delay in making a decision about WAM, issues with emergency support fund, the unclear nature of online exams and proposed changes to Special Consideration have all had a drastic impact on students’ mental health”, says UMSU President Hannah Buchan.

 “More support is needed for students”, Buchan told Farrago.

 “The University needs to be more compassionate when making decisions about students.”

 “The University needs to continue to provide mental health services, but they also need to consult students about the decisions that they are making”, she said.

 Buchan said a failure to do so is “exacerbating mental health issues”.

This particularly applied to proposed changes to the Special Consideration program, which UMSU has said range “from the benign to the ridiculously mean spirited”, and are made more “inappropriate” by the added stresses of the pandemic.

  This calls into question the University’s success in ensuring institutional support for mental health during the pandemic. A University spokesperson told Farrago:

 “The University’s services have taken a ‘wellbeing first’ approach, with staff taking extra time and effort to ensure each interaction with students allows them to talk about how they are coping with the challenges of studying during this difficult time.”

 Farrago spoke to a tutor from the University who wished to remain anonymous. When asked about the University’s allocating additional resources to implement the ‘extra care’ the spokesperson mentioned, they replied: “the only thing I’ve received as staff is an R U OK email last Thursday and nothing else”.

 “To be honest this is the first I’m hearing of a ‘wellbeing first’ approach.”

 “We used to get paid for an hour of consulting… now class preparation, consultation and first tutorial of the week [are] lumped into one hours’ pay of ‘initial tutorial’ time”.

 “We didn’t get paid for consultations before COVID, and we definitely [aren’t] given any extra resources to support students now. A lot of the goodwill of the teaching team in terms of looking out for students comes from a genuine love of teaching that the Uni unfortunately, exploits.”

 Considering these responses alongside the UMSU’s criticisms, it would appear the University is not sufficiently integrating mental health wellbeing practices within the institutional instances Orygen identified. 

 Just as damning – and with broader potential implications for the university cohort – the tutor told Farrago, “apparently if one of my students gets COVID, there’s a whole procedure in place that none of [the staff] knew about but that the Uni was peddling as part of a strategy to support students”.

 Both the Victorian and federal governments have also introduced packages aimed at supporting those suffering from mental ill health during the pandemic. Since March, the Australian Government has announced several increases to mental health support, including extra funding for service providers and ten additional Medicare-subsided therapy sessions.

 In a press release from 2 August 2020, Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt said:

 “Mental health and suicide prevention remains one of our Government’s highest priorities, and this Government recognises the mental health impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on individuals and communities, particularly those in areas such as Victoria, where regrettable but necessary measures are needed to stop the spread of the virus”.

 Despite this sentiment, the government has been criticised by experts for not doing enough to both recognise and support those with mental illness during the pandemic. One such expert is Professor Patrick McGorry, head of the Orygen Centre for Youth Mental Health in Melbourne.

 “I don’t think they currently understand the scale of the problem”, he said.

 “We predict a 30% increase in need for care on top of what was happening before for young people and we are starting to see it already.”

 Since late-July, there has been a drastic increase in young people in Victoria presenting to hospital with self-harm issues, up 33% from this time last year.

 One of McGorry’s main criticisms is the lack of spending on mental health compared to other government-funded services, like the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

 “The underspend is quite incredible, which means only a minority of people get access to care, and only a minority get the right intensity and duration”.

 River* is a student at the University who suffers from depression, generalised anxiety and disordered eating. River has experienced first-hand how difficult the pandemic has been on young people suffering from mental ill health.

 River* was able to access the additional Medicare-subsided therapy sessions offered by the Federal government, but found themselves rationing the extra sessions out of fear they’d run out when they needed them the most.

 “I would be writing down issues that were affecting me so when I did meet with my therapist I would be like ‘okay these aren’t important enough, I can’t afford to talk about these issues. I’ll just talk about the main ones’”.

 River* believes that more needs to be done to support students and others suffering from mental illnesses during the pandemic.

 “Those sessions cannot be presented as the sole, all-encompassing solution to an issue that manifests in many different ways. A lot of people in my position might just suffer alone because they aren’t getting the help they need as the system currently stands”.

 Professor McGorry has several suggestions for how the Government should remedy this.

 “We need to build up new workforces and new models of care, and also bring in digital mental health as a complimentary strategy. They should be absolutely one of the top priorities for the Government going forward”.

 Whether the University and the Government take this advice from experts and those with mental illnesses is yet to be seen.

 *Individual has requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of topics discussed. A pseudonym has been used in place of their real name.

 If you have been impacted by the issues raised in this article, or would like to seek further mental health aid, we encourage you to look into these services:



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