Academic journal article Advances in Mental Health

Health and Wellbeing in Students with Very High Psychological Distress from a Regional Australian University

Academic journal article Advances in Mental Health

Health and Wellbeing in Students with Very High Psychological Distress from a Regional Australian University

Article excerpt

The 2008 review of Australian higher education, the Bradley review, predicts that the supply of highly educated people will not keep up with society's demands. In response, increasing the proportion of the population educated to degree level has been targeted as an Australian federal government priority. To support demand, the Bradley review suggests an increase in participants from traditionally underrepresented groups, including people from lower socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds and those from regional and rural areas (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent, & Scales, 2008). While the broadening of access to university study is laudable in concept, it also presents inherent risks and costs, including increased mental and financial stress, particularly for students without adequate support mechanisms.

Several studies, international (Eisenberg, Hunt, & Speer, 2013; Ibrahim, Kelly, & Glazebrook, 2013) and Australian (Said, Kypri, & Bowman, 2013), document that university study is associated with increased levels of mental disorders. Eisenberg et al. (2013) reported the prevalence of depression at 17.3%, panic disorder at 4.1%, generalized anxiety disorder at 7.0%, suicidal ideation at 6.3% and non-suicidal self-injury at 15.3% in a study on US college students from 26 campuses nationwide (n = 14,175) (Eisenberg et al., 2013). In addition, Garlow et al. (2008) reported signs of moderate to severe depression in 54% of US students (n = 729) and Ibrahim, Kelly, and Glazebrook (2013) reported that 58% of students scored above the threshold for depression in a UK study (n = 923), while Said, Kypri, and Bowman (2013) reported the prevalence of depression at 8% and anxiety at 13% in Australian students (n = 6,044). Further, a large international study of university students from 23 high-, middle- and low-income countries (n = 17,348) reported moderately severe symptoms of depression in about 20% of students. While rates varied substantially between countries, depressive symptoms were more prevalent among students from less wealthy backgrounds (assessment of wealth was relative rather than absolute) and in countries with greater income inequality (Steptoe, Tsuda, Tanaka, & Wardle, 2007). In contrast, the 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data reported the prevalence of a depressive episode within the general population at 4.1% and an anxiety disorder at 14.4% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). Therefore, these studies suggest higher rates of mental disorders in higher education students, at least for depression, compared to the general Australian population.

While determining the prevalence of depression and anxiety is important, meeting the threshold on screening tools does not necessarily correspond to a diagnosis of a mental health illness such as depression. Another measure of mental health is psychological distress. In 2010, Stallman studied the mental health of metropolitan Australian university students and utilised the Kessler-10 Psychological Distress scale (K-10). This scale is a self-report questionnaire to determine 'psychological distress' rather than prevalence of a specific psychiatric illness. Stallman's study (n = 6,479) identified 16% of students with low levels of distress, 65% with moderate to high distress and 19% with very high distress (2010). Compared to 2007 ABS data on the general Australian population, these are high percentages, considering the general population levels of 71%, 26% and 3% respectively (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). This comparison provides further evidence of increased distress in higher education students.

In addition to the K-10, other validated self-report measures have been used to determine positive measures of mental wellbeing. These include the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWS) and the Personal Wellbeing Index (PWI), both of which cover positive attributes of mental well-being, including pleasure, happiness, health and prosperity. …

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