28 Sep 2018

Students around NZ echo mental health care concerns

9:15 am on 28 September 2018

Students are having their say about mental health care and waiting times in universities.

Generic Library / Students

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The story of Wellington student Dani Saundry, who was asked to leave her hostel after attempting suicide has triggered a debate about health services available to students.

Auckland University student Hannah Ashford-Beck said people could slip through the cracks especially if resident advisors did not realise who may be in trouble.

A resident advisor (RA) is a university staff member, lives in the university accommodation and provides support for students in halls of residence.

"If they know what's going on they're really helpful, but I guess it's quite individual," Ms Ashford-Beck said.

"You've got other people around you, but if you've got issues you're not necessarily telling the RAs and sometimes some things can go unnoticed quite easily because of that."

Auckland University of Technology (AUT) student Beth McDonald said students faced long waiting times for counselling, even if they do ask for help.

"You ask your mates [for help] or you don't ask anyone. Sometimes when you ask your mates, we're the ones to tell them to go to either the RAs, or we have counselling at uni."

She said there was a one or two month waiting list to see a counsellor "which is not ideal if someone is in a real bad situation".

AUT said current waiting times were one to three weeks, though they had been up to four weeks.

It said urgent needs were met on the day.

The University of Auckland's longest waiting time this year was 10 days, it said, and the average was less than five days.

The service prioritised students and offered those experiencing a crisis immediate appointments.

Appointments at its counselling service had increased by nearly 9 per cent, from 3389 to 3673, between 2017 and 2018.

In Christchurch, first-year student Hunter Stewart said his hall of residence was open about mental health.

"If you've got anything wrong you can go see the manager.

"You can just message her anytime and if you've got any mental issues or anything you can go talk to her and they're real supportive.

"They offer a lot. There's maybe 500 people in my hall but they seem to make time for you."

University of Otago student Riley Thoroughgood said while his hall had plenty of support on offer, he'd heard people at other halls did not get the same help.

"We are in a smaller hall so that probably does help.

"But I do hear stories with people who are struggling and might not get the same amount of support."

Mental health resources under strain

Universities New Zealand, which represents the country's eight universities, is in the early stages of forming a national strategy for mental health services on campuses.

Executive director Chris Whelan said mental health resources were strained under the pressure of high university student numbers.

"We're seeing an increased incidence of students seeking support for a range of issues; everything from mild depression and anxiety through to much more severe things."

Universities New Zealand made a submission in June to the government inquiry into mental health.

"All New Zealand university health and counselling services experience unacceptably long waiting times for students in mental distress to access professional care," the submission read.

It said government investment, in partnership with education providers, was needed for early intervention, reducing waiting times and support for health staff.

Mr Whelan said national strategy may take up to 12 months to finalise but should help universities deliver better mental health care.

"These are young people who will obviously go out of university into the world. The more resilient and capable we can make them on that journey the better."

Where to get help relating to mental health:

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

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