• The incidence of mental health issues in higher education students has steadily increased in recent years.
  • Strengths based and wellness models have been shown to be protective of mental health.
  • All students engage with the teaching and curriculum space and this provides a ‘front line’ of potential support for student mental health.
  • Supporting student wellbeing through student centred teaching and inclusive curriculum design can improve success and retention.

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Student mental health Strengths-based approaches Wellbeing, success, retention and flourishing Curriculum design for wellbeing

Student mental health

 Student and an ACU representative talking

The incidence of mental health issues facing students engaged in higher education has steadily increased in recent years. This increase in prevalence has also been accompanied by an increase in the severity and complexity. This trend is a critical issue in higher education.

Most mental health conditions emerge prior to the age of 25 years. This peak onset for mental health issues often coincides with participation in higher education for young people. Current statistics indicate that over 50% of people aged 18-24 are engaged in higher education in Australia. This therefore represents an opportunity for early action to provide mental health support for this group.

Evidence indicates that university students both in Australia and Internationally have an ‘extremely high’ incidence of mental illness. These students have higher incidence of mental illness than same age peers not attending university and report a lower sense of personal wellbeing than the general population. Conservative estimates indicate that upwards of 210,000 Australian university students aged 18-25 years will experience complex and severe mental ill-health annually. As such, some researchers assert that student wellbeing is the central challenge facing higher education. 

Some of the major risk factors facing students include academic pressure, financial pressure, relocation, transition to independence, drug and alcohol use, poor diet associated with financial constraints, and lack of sleep. Compounding this, it is generally accepted that students can expect to enter an increasingly competitive and unpredictable environment as graduates.

The massification of higher education and consequent increased participation of non-traditional groups can have a further complicating impact in terms of student wellbeing. Direct evidence indicates higher risks to mental wellbeing are associated specifically within particular ‘non-traditional’ groups.

These include –

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
  • First in family
  • International
  • LGBTQI+ identifying
  • Low SES
  • Physically disabled
  • Rural and regional

Proactive and strengths-based approaches to wellbeing

People must be in good mental health to thrive, flourish and contribute to the good of the community. However, mental health remains one of the Australian Federal Government’s eight national health priorities. Given the impact of poor mental health on the community, all measures to reduce the burden of disease in this category have broad benefit.

Known determinants of mental wellbeing, most notably social connection, have been disrupted in line with mass transition to online interaction as the dominant form of communication. Compounding the social disconnection’s impact, several other determinants of health have also been touched by the pandemic. These include dislocation, economic burden and physical health. This results in a complex system of interdependent challenges to mental wellbeing which is likely to have a lasting effect beyond the ‘COVID era’.

Strengths-based, wellness, recovery and self-deterministic approaches have been demonstrated to promote mental wellbeing. These approaches privilege the promotion of mental health literacy and the development of factors known to be protective.

These factors include –

  • Health promotion
  • Building resilience
  • Social inclusion
  • Removal of stigma
  • Early identification
  • Early intervention

Such models assist individuals to flourish, maintain dignity and connect to the community to contribute to the common good. Adoption of these models can assist our students to engage and develop within their lifecycle as a student, and beyond into life as a graduate.

Wellbeing, success, retention and flourishing

Higher education providers have a critical role to play in promoting the wellbeing of their students as individuals connected to the community. As wellbeing is one critical co-determinant to the capacity to learn, addressing issues compromising wellbeing is critical to success and completion. Poor mental health has a direct impact upon academic performance and completion. This has a clear flow on effect on the community.

Improved wellbeing and retention can be promoted through an effective partnership between students and higher education providers. Transition Pedagogy Frameworks aimed at improving retention have previously focussed around the first-year experience. The principles of transition pedagogy, however, are equally applicable to all students at all stages of their experience as they are always in a state of transition.

The transition pedagogy framework identifies the value of teaching practices which are supportive of diversity and inclusivity. These features align to the principles of inclusion known to promote wellbeing. Moreover, a number of these principles align to aspects of adult learning theory which recognise the value of building upon the lived experience of the student and empowering them through promoting active learning. As such, student wellbeing and retention can be as simple as applying sound andragogy within a safe learning environment.

Promoting wellness through teaching and curriculum design

Many Australian Universities currently have well established student wellbeing plans. Although several of these are more focused around extra-curricular support services some are notable for their deeper focus on the teaching and curriculum space. This is where the primary interaction with students takes place. It is therefore the primary opportunity to embed strategies which promote student mental wellbeing. If curriculum design and teaching practices do not include features which promote wellbeing, they can inadvertently undermine student mental health.

Student centred approaches to curriculum design, teaching and assessment can promote social inclusion and support increasingly diverse student groups.

Some key critical features in this area include –

  • Curricular alignment to real word needs
  • Teaching and assessment approaches which promote student engagement through collaboration, authentic learning and assessment
  • Teaching practices which promote collaboration, safe learning environments and engagement
  • Fostering a culture of trust to promote wellbeing and normalise discourse around mental health

Teaching and curriculum design for wellbeing at ACU

Curriculum is developed, delivered and engaged with at a range of levels. These include the ‘intended’ level of design through the governance process, the ‘enacted’ level of resource development and teaching and the ‘experienced’ level at which students engage. For students to experience learning which promotes wellbeing, curriculum needs to be consciously constructed at both the intended (governance) and enacted (implementation) levels.

Opportunities to integrate mental wellbeing into curriculum and teaching occur in -

  • Design
    • What – mental health literacy and relevant content around wellness embedded at course and unit level through course review process (e.g. exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, social inclusion, community engagement)
    • How – teaching and assessment rationales promote active student-centred learning
  • Teaching
    • What – mental health literacy at implementation level and in teaching practice
    • How – learning activities designed to maximise engagement, interaction, collaboration and activity
  • Support and collaboration
    • What – academic community approach to foster collaboration and build capacity
    • How – curation and sharing of good practice models transferable across disciplines supported by a professional development framework

ACU Student Mental Health Strategy and Implementation Plan. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.acu.edu.au/-/media/feature/pagecontent/richtext/about-acu/student-strategy/_doc/acu-student-mental-health-strategy-and-implementation-plan.pdf

Australian Bureau of Statisitics. (2009). Causes of Death, Australia, 2007. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Products/5317BAD6B8EEE19ACA25757C001EED30?opendocument

Baik, C., Larcombe, W., Brooker, A., Wyn, J., Allen, L., Field, R., & James, R. (2017). Enhancing student mental wellbeing: a handbook for academic educators. Retrieved from Melbourne: MCSHE-Student-Wellbeing-Handbook-FINAL.pdf (unimelb.edu.au)

Houghton, A.-M., & Anderson, J. (2017). Embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum: maximising success in higher education. Retrieved from https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/embedding-mental-wellbeing-curriculum-maximising-success-higher-education

Kift, S. (2009). Articulating a transition pedagogy to scaffold and to enhance the first year student learning experience in Australian higher education. Retrieved from https://transitionpedagogy.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Kift-Sally-ALTC-Senior-Fellowship-Report-Sep-09.pdf

Leonard, W., & Metcalf, A. (2014). Going upstream: a framework for promoting the mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Retrieved from https://www.lgbtiqhealth.org.au/going_upstream

Marsh, C., & Willis, G. (2007). Curriculum, alternative approaches, ongoing issues (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Pearson/ Meril Prentice Hall.

Martin, J. M. (2010). Stigma and student mental health in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(3), 259-274. doi:10.1080/07294360903470969 

McGorry, P., Purcell, R., Goldstone, S., & Amminger, G. (2011). Age of onset and timing of treatment for mental and substance use conditions: implications for preventive intervention strategies and models of care. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 24(4), 301-306. doi:10.1097/YCO.0b013e3283477a09 

National LGBTQI Health Alliance. (2020). Snapshot of the mental health and suicide prevention staticitcs for LGBTI people Retrieved from https://www.lgbtihealth.org.au/statistics

Orygen, T. N. C. o. E. i. Y. M. H. (2017). Under the radar. The mental health of Australian university students. Retrieved from https://www.orygen.org.au/Policy/Policy-Reports/Under-the-radar/Orygen-Under_the_radar_report?ext=.

Reavley, N. J., & Jorm, A. F. (2010). Prevention and early intervention to improve mental health in higher education students: a review. Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 4(2), 132-142. doi:10.1111/j.1751-7893.2010.00167.x 

Reavley, N. J., McCann, T. V., & Jorm, A. F. (2012). Mental health literacy in higher education students. Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 6(1), 45-52. doi:10.1111/j.1751-7893.2011.00314.x 

Stallman, H. M. (2010). Psychological distress in university students: A comparison with general population data. Australian Psychologist, 45(4), 249-257. doi:10.1080/00050067.2010.482109

Steuer, N., & Marks, N. (2008). University Challenge: Towards a Well-being Approach to Quality in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://neweconomics.org/uploads/files/176e59e9cc07f9e21c_qkm6iby2y.pdf

Spear, S., Morey, Y., & van Steen, T. (2020). Academics’ perceptions and experiences of working with students with mental health problems: insights from across the UK higher education sector. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-14. doi:10.1080/07294360.2020.1798887
Page last updated on 30/08/2023

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