Social Issues

Why students are so angry about mental health

For weeks pressure has been building at Victoria University of Wellington. Wednesday it escaped onto the forecourt of Parliament as part of a student campaign titled “The Wait is Over”. With passion reminiscent of student protests of old, students rallied against widespread inaction. Not against issues of free speech, nor violence, or even ingrained discrimination. Instead students rallied against the ongoing failure to address the mental health crisis in our country.

Why do students feel so much anger about a topic which has only relatively recently become part of public discourse? It is because that mental health crisis has devastated students throughout the country.

Those aged between 15 and 24 have the highest rates of psychological distress - 11.8 percent of people in this age group reported experiencing psychological distress in 2016/2017, the highest of any age group. This figure is escalating fast. Only five years ago the prevalence of psychological distress among 15 to 24 year olds was just 5 percent. Even more worryingly, more than one in 10 people aged 15 to 24 are depressed. 

The staggering prevalence of those mental health issues in the student community has had a fatal effect. In 2015 there was nearly 17 suicides for every 1000 people aged 20 to 24 - virtually guaranteeing that every student has had a friend, or a friend’s friend, die by suicide. It is this mental health crisis which prompted “The Wait is Over” campaign to organise the rally on the Parliamentary forecourt. It allowed students to attest to the toll that the mental health crisis has taken by speaking about the sisters and friends they have lost. It allowed students to demonstrate to university administrations, the local District Health Board, and the Government that students are impatient for change. 

That impatience is driven by chronic underfunding of mental health services. The budget of Victoria University provides a very tangible example of this underfunding. The entire health and counselling expenditure  of the university (which includes physical health and pastoral care, in addition to mental health) is $5.662 million - all of which comes out of the Services Levy which students pay in addition to their academic fees. Total university expenditure in 2017 was $441.647 million. Therefore only 1.28 percent of university expenditure was devoted to student health, and just a small portion of that is dedicated to mental health specifically. There are myriad things a university must spend money on. Nonetheless devoting such a tiny proportion of spending to student health is short-sighted given the negative impact of mental health issues on the ability of students to pursue academic advancement. 

Budgets of successive governments have compounded this problem. Expenditure for mental health peaked in 2016/17, when just over $69 million was spent on mental health services nationwide - supporting all demographics. Two years later, the 2018 Budget only allocated $68 million to the same services.

In fact, in 2016/2017, $15.68 million more was actually spent on mental health than was budgeted. But that difference in budgeted and actual expenditure is an anomaly. Generally the budgeted figure is a good indicator of what will be spent - and to students and young people feeling the pressure, $68 million is just not enough.

That underfunding puts students in an unenviable position. One student requested a meeting with the single university psychiatrist to discuss her mental health. The next available appointment was January 2019. The only alternative is to go through the public psychiatric system - which often has similar wait times and can require students to travel from the central city to the Hutt or Porirua.

The official response to these concerns has been to point to improved efficiency and efficacy in the delivery of mental health services. For example, Capital and Coast DHB declared in its 2016/2017 annual peport that, “People receive high quality mental health services when admitted”. They note that the number readmitted with acute mental health issues is below the national average. They detail that between 50 and 60 percent of patients are new to the system.

Of course, high quality mental health services are to be celebrated and encouraged. Yet lauding an ability to deal with patients with severe issues does nothing to address concerns that patients with low and intermediate issues (which spiral upwards into the severe category) are missing out on the support they need. And there is little upside in the fact that there is a surge of new patients to the mental health system.

Many students are tired of these official assertions. So the rally at Parliament, and the wider “The Wait is Over” campaign, has served a larger purpose - to make direct change by helping students and young adults more comfortable talking about mental health. Victoria University students spoke about feeling inadequate, depressed and suicidal. Most importantly they spoke about the shame and masculine culture which prevented them from sharing those feelings. 

In the age of social media and culturally coercive perfectionism, most students hide their struggles. Many students look graceful, popular and confident on the surface, but hide the heartbreak, mental turmoil and disappointment that everyone experiences. By making that struggle and disappointment public, and openly admitting vulnerability, “The Wait is Over” campaign hopes to reassure those who are struggling that their situation is not terminal or even abnormal. 

“The Wait is Over” campaign is fostering open discourse by facilitating frank conversations about mental health, by inviting students to write honest accounts of their harrowing experiences on banners, and even by encouraging simple actions like posting selfies on Instagram detailing how students have turned their insecurities into sources of body positivity and confidence.

Sharing those mental health stories empowers students to reach out about suicidal thoughts, without fear of being judged or denigrated. It allows students to frankly discuss stress, anxiety and depression so that friends, family and community can help. The rally at Parliament drew attention to the fatal impact of New Zealand’s broken mental health system. But the wider “The Wait is Over” campaign is even more profound; students taking matters into their own hands, reaching out to their peers and creating a society more accepting of vulnerability and supportive of those who need help. 

Where to get help:

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

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

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.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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