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You are reading: Understanding wellbeing challenges for university students during crisis disruption

Lynette Vernon1, Dr Kathryn Modecki2, Dr Kylie Austin3

Executive summary

For students studying at university, maintaining optimum mental health and wellbeing is imperative to participate and engage in all aspects of learning: including but not limited to lectures, tutorials, laboratories, workshops, assessments, and practicums. Because of the repercussions from the disruptions of 2020, Australian university students have been under immense pressure as they adapted to considerably different study conditions.

Prevented from being on campus and switching to online study mode differed from their previous experiences and expectations of university study. The findings from this study confirm that a significant proportion of university students – two out of three in our study – experienced high levels of psychological distress.

This study contributes to a needed research arena focused on university student mental health and wellbeing. Drawing on data from more than 1,400 students across Australia and leveraging both quantitative and qualitative reports, study findings reflect the diversity of students who carry with them a variety of strengths from their lived experience.

By recognising the challenges students faced and the realisation of the connection between student success and mental health, many universities made significant commitments to improving students’ mental health. However, as perceived by students in our study, some did not. Students’ levels of psychological distress were higher for universities with lower levels of support. Conversely, students had lower levels of psychological distress if they felt their university provided a sense of belonging and connectedness in addition to being authentic and consistent with their governance.

We recognise that universities across Australia have a wealth of knowledge on how to prioritise mental health and wellbeing and have responded with many changes in a number of spheres to meet student needs. During the crisis disruptions of 2020, there have been increased mental health resources and support packages offered to young people in universities and nationwide. Yet, we still see long waiting lists for mental health services, including within our university counselling services, which can only serve a small percentage of need.

Therefore, we advocate for universities to gain accurate data on prevalence rates of psychological distress across their student population and accurately map what structures and processes across the university community support student mental health and wellbeing.

This study has collected data on prevalence rates and mapped structures and processes available in universities that impact student mental health and wellbeing, albeit on a small scale.

Key findings

  1. The prevalence of psychological distress among university students across Australia in 2020 was high (32%) to very high (39%). These students reported substantially higher psychological distress levels than previous students, but the levels are commensurate with other global research examining the prevalence of psychological distress for university students during the crisis disruptions of 2020.
  2. Students identifying as belonging to an equity-based group were vulnerable to high levels of psychological distress (students from low SES backgrounds, rural and regional students, international students, students who identify as having a disability), as well as students who identified as first-in-family. These groups of students experienced high levels of psychological distress, which were, on average, not different to the general population of students, except for students identifying with a disability who faced higher levels of psychological distress than the general population of university students.
  3. Students who experienced high levels of institutional support and collective support from within their university experienced lower levels of psychological distress.
  4. For students, access to technology resources was vital for continued, stress-free study. The lack of technological devices such as a laptop and fast, affordable internet made completing online study almost impossible, especially for students in regional and remote areas.

The increased levels of psychological distress for current and future university students will remain long after the economy recovers, the borders reopen, and we learn to live with the COVID-19 virus. For those students affected by the bushfires of 2020, the impact still lingers due to communities’ physical devastation, which has negatively impacted students’ wellbeing. The release of the Australian University Mental Health Framework coincided with the immense challenges of 2020 and has brought mental health to the forefront of national concern and university governance.

Although this framework guides a whole-of-university approach to mental health and wellbeing, the first step for universities is to collect accurate data on the prevalence of psychological distress for their students and map the university processes and structures that support student mental health and wellbeing.


Based on the findings from this research and to suggest practical strategies, it is recommended that:

  1. To understand the prevalence of mental health across the university student population, we advocate for universities across Australia to adopt a population screening tool (like the K10) to identify, broadly and at the diverse group level, areas of positive mental health and areas of emerging mental health risk. Knowing the extent of wellbeing within the student population will enable the development, access and maintenance of targeted structures and processes to support students.
  2. To understand the reality of the student’s experience, additional questions tapping into a sense of belonging and connectedness can be added to the student evaluation surveys to ascertain how students feel about their university collective support culture. Knowing the degree to which students feel belonging and connectedness associates with student wellbeing and informs university governance about the overall support culture of their university
  3. To understand the efficacy of the proximal processes and structures directly accessible to the student in their day-to-day activities and of the distal processes and systems that influence policy and procedures, the university can use the conceptual model (figure 43) to map and assess the effectiveness of their institutional support culture and mental health. Notably, the focus for this mapping needs to ensure consistency and authenticity of processes and procedures across all levels of university governance and monitor these dynamic interactions by providing students with opportunities to feedback to the institution.
  4. The university needs to consider setting up a device (laptop) loan system to support student access to technology. Libraries are already large lending institutions within universities and have traditionally housed on-campus computer access. However, as traditional hardcopy resources transition to an online environment (including online textbooks) and COVID-19 repercussions continue to limit the availability of on-campus technology use, universities need to pivot to loan out technology to students and facilitate student access to the internet. As campuses continue to conduct their teaching online and when campus resources (computers and eduroam) are unavailable for student use, equitable access to technology and the internet is paramount to reduce stress for students who do not have their own device, including when their internet service is limited or not affordable.

With such high rates of psychological distress in the university student population, exacerbated by the disruptions of 2020, the findings of this research emphasise the importance of universities monitoring students’ wellbeing within a whole-of university approach to mental health and wellbeing.

Upscaling this research in each university and monitoring the data output over time will go a long way towards accurately measuring the mental health and wellbeing of university students across Australia. Universities can then monitor their prevention strategies relating to institutional and collective support with the student at the centre and resources readily available in the students’ environment to foster positive mental health development.

Read the full report: Understanding wellbeing challenges for university students during crisis disruption

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1Edith Cowan University
2Griffith University
3University of Wollongong

Expert Review

Dr Rachael Dodd
Senior Research Fellow, the Daffodil Centre
Faculty of Medicine and Health
The University of Sydney

In this report, Lynette Vernon, Kathryn Modecki and Kylie Austin provide a detailed overview of factors impacting psychological distress during both the bushfires and COVID-19, in a cross-sectional sample of University students. The authors in particular focus on students perceptions of institutional and collective support available during COVID-19. The authors further analyse psychological distress across a number of equity groups and establish psychological distress was no greater in these groups than the whole sample, apart from in those with a disability. The findings strengthen the evidence base around equity and provide some recommendations to increase quality and capability.

COVID-19 has created significant challenges for higher education institutions and major disruptions in teaching and learning. Through the changing face of higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic, students have needed to adapt in all aspects of their lives, with many students converting to online learning. The authors position their findings within institutional and collective support and support previous findings in the Australian context.

The report makes a timely contribution to the impact of COVID-19 on higher education students. Supporting the health, wellbeing, and learning experiences of all students should be of high priority now and post-pandemic. The authors provide recommendations based on the entire sample, but with recognition that equitable provision of technology is necessary. The challenge is to enact these recommendations and ensure they remain equitable across all University students.

Download the full report:
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