Mental health prevention strategies for student wellbeing essential to academic journey

To help students better cope with the pressures of their academic journey, UOW’s Counselling Service has been proactively delivering wellbeing and resilience workshops. 

Demanding subjects and entering a new country with a different study system have been identified as potentially stress-inducing experiences for students, and can negatively impact their university studies.

Registered Psychologist and UOW Counsellor, Nadja Rosser, identified a need for in-house training in mental health and self-care for specific student cohorts who might be experiencing these and other obstacles.

“We ran three separate pilot workshops on perfectionism, stress and anxiety and resilience. Following great feedback from students we decided to run a ‘Student Wellbeing and Resilience Kickstarter’ workshop series,” Ms Rosser says.

The three-part strengths-based workshops were initiated by Pauline Cook, registered Psychologist and UOW Counsellor, and co-delivered by Pauline and Nadja in conjunction with the Wellbeing Centre. They provided psychoeducation, early intervention and prevention, help-seeking strategies, information on UOW support services and practical interventions.

“We teach them how to recognise stress, what resilience is and what is the resilience signature strength,” Nadja explains.

She says they received positive feedback from the group who completed the training.

“We asked them if they thought this needed to be part of the original curriculum and they all said this was brilliant because we taught them something they hadn’t previously been exposed to.”

A second program targeting students studying medicine was introduced following a long-term collaborative dialogue between Counselling Services and the Graduate Medicine student support staff.

The ‘Mental Health and Early Self-care for Future Health Professionals’ workshop delivered to more than 50 medical students, aimed to improve the mental health, resilience and wellbeing of these potential future leaders in medicine.

The program focused on the concerning symptoms of stress, components of good mental health and how to thrive during the study period and hospital placements.

Dr Alison Tomlin, Head of Students at Graduate Medicine, says the pressure on these students is significant.

“Graduate Medicine is a four year course, whereas undergraduate medical degrees were traditionally five or six years, so a lot of content is condensed into a four year degree. To accommodate this, the contact hours per week are greater and session times are longer,” she says.

Dr Tomlin recognises stress levels for these students are often higher because of this condensed course structure and students’ high expectations of themselves.

“The students have worked long and hard to get into medicine and it means there’s been a lot of pressure to get here as well as a sense of needing to perform well now that they’re here,” she says.

During the workshops the students shared their struggles including; student life pressures, the impact of increased stress, their difficulties expressing negative emotions, not coping and having to deal with additional life issues.

Psychologist and UOW Counsellor, Nadja Rosser, says the definitive need for the support program for medical students was clear following a high attendance rate at both workshops.

“We had such a breakthrough with students writing to their student support staff to say how important they felt the workshops were. They were also more willing to come to Counselling and talk to us.

Dr Tomlin echoes the positive student sentiment and has observed some subtle behaviour changes.

“I would say it’s been able to influence the students’ approach to their studies by improving their confidence and supporting them to ask for the academic help that they need, so there’s been lots of benefits,” she says.

Alison agrees mental health and wellbeing programs should also be made part of the Graduate Medicine study curriculum.

“I certainly think it’s a good idea, firstly its core importance - it’s not okay to put things off and talk about junior doctors’ mental health and wellbeing, we need to be providing the psychoeducation earlier on so that students can remain well throughout their studies.

“I also think having something within the curriculum, putting it there front and centre is something of key importance. It’s more challenging for us to add things outside the curriculum and for them to be equally valued,” Dr Tomlin says.

After working in her own Psychology practice, Ms Rosser agrees that future doctors need to be equipped with an understanding of mental health issues.

“I feel health professionals and psychologists need to work together; they need to be familiar with what we offer.

“If the students learn these strategies and learn to apply them, they will see how relevant it is to their patients,” she affirms.

When it comes to getting the best outcomes, Nadja says students often feel more comfortable discussing their experiences in groups.

“I think the group work is very important because it normalises a lot of stories that people keep in their mind and think maybe it’s only them.

“People said in the workshops they felt free to talk about their shortcomings and they realised that other people were thinking similar thoughts, so it must be okay,” she says.

After the workshops the number of students using the Counselling Service increased after they realised the benefits of the preventative mental health strategies.

“While they’re studying, they have access to the Counselling Service which teaches them skills and they can then recognise the early symptoms and therefore search for help earlier.

Ms Rosser believes mental health prevention programs could be introduced to students at an even younger age.

“I hope we could have something compulsory in schools, because I think these skills are compulsory, especially now that we are talking about mental health issues increasing,” she says.

The Counselling Service hopes to provide more ongoing communication groups and workshops to broaden the skills of students during their time at UOW, and to help prepare them for their future careers.