Contrary to what might be expected, for many young people, becoming unwell does not trigger an immediate need to get help from those around them.
For the past six years, I have led a research program with Associate Professor Peter Caputi that has examined the mental health and wellbeing of approximately 1800 first year University of Wollongong students.
Each year our research team has systematically assessed levels of university students’ stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thinking on standard clinical measures.
Seeking appropriate help is a key part of overall health and wellbeing so we have also assessed students’ help-seeking behaviours, and reasons for not seeking help, for each of these problems.
Each year, our results have found that approximately one of three young men and three of five young women report symptoms of stress that are moderate to severe - one of two young men and almost all young women report symptoms of anxiety and depression that are moderate to severe.
Approximately one of 20 young men and one of 20 young women report thinking seriously about suicide from “once a month to almost every day”.
For many, experiencing these symptoms is associated with reluctance to seek help or connect with people, including family and friends as well as doctors and other health professionals.
Recently our team compared our current data to that reported by university students 10 years ago. We found that reluctance to seek help is essentially a normal process that occurs as young people become distressed, and one that has not changed significantly in the past 10 years.
Our results also suggest that the process of becoming unwell itself acts as a stronger barrier to staying connected, seeking help, and becoming well again, than other reasons provided by university students.
While our research program is ongoing, and far more is yet to be learned about the reasons for why young people do and do not engage in help-seeking and wellbeing behaviours, there are several key messages that the research has uncovered.
The first is that it is common when feeling stressed, anxious or depressed to withdraw from those around us. If we feel ourselves withdrawing, the best thing we can do is to do something to reconnect.
The second message is that it is more common than not for students to feel stressed, anxious, or depressed.
Students are not alone in how they feel and there are things they can do, such as exercise, and places they can go around the university and online for good information, support and advice.
Dr Coralie Wilson is a Behavioural Health Scientist and the Academic Leader for Personal and Professional Development in the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Wollongong and an expert advisor for the Lifeline Australia Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Results from her research program have informed the Lifeline Educational Suite for over a decade and can be downloaded at http://www.lifeline.org.au/
Results described above are soon to be published in three studies that case-matched a sample of 1300 students. The studies are co-authored by professor David Kavanagh (Queensland University of Technology) and Ms Anna Cavanagh (UOW).