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

Written by Lynette Vernon1, Dr Kathryn Modecki2, Dr Kylie Austin3

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.

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


1Edith Cowan University
2Griffith University
3University of Wollongong