Wassup? – Embedded Mental Health Education to raise awareness of mental health issues

Silver Lining by Sameer Sethi https://flic.kr/p/d9LCqh CC BY 2.0

By embedding mental health education in to the Bachelor of Health, students will gain an understanding of mental illness and overcome obstacles to academic success.

A 2017 Educational Innovation Grant seeks to address the enormous and costly problem of university drop-outs due to mental health issues by equipping students with the knowledge and skills to prevent, detect and address mental health problems common among university students early in their degree.

Young Australians have the highest prevalence of mental illness of any age group in Australia, and at the University of Sydney, students with psychological disabilities make up around two thirds of those registered with Disability Services. It is likely that the problem is even greater than these statistics reveal, as many students are unwilling to seek help because of a lack of awareness of mental health conditions, and misconceptions and stigma attached to mental illness.

Students may fail one or more units, face an academic honesty report, or withdraw from their study, without their mental health issues being recognised by themselves, their teachers, year coordinators or student services. They may then go on to develop more serious mental health conditions.

To address this, an innovative teaching project will embed pastoral care and a preventative health initiative for students into the curriculum. This will ultimately improve their learning, well-being, and university experience. While they are learning about mental health as a topic, they are subtly being empowered to reflect on issues they themselves may be grappling with.

The project uses an active learning approach and content which is relevant to students, both of which are key to motivation and learning. As part of a core unit of study, around 350 Bachelor of Health Science first year students will participate in an interactive session from a multi-disciplinary team providing an overview of mental health conditions, student presentations, quizzes and challenges. They will use realistic video case studies in tutorial sessions and work in groups to discuss the detection of a mental health condition and possible support for a fictitious person with a mental health problem. For assessment, learners will collaboratively generate a short film communicating a facet of mental health conditions, which will be marked by tutors and peers.

Framed in an understanding of how the culture of competition and individualism has ultimately led to an epidemic crisis of mental health problems, the project will help students avoid thinking about mental health conditions as a sign of something inherently wrong with the sufferer, and come to understand that it is a much wider, more complex problem. This approach also takes into account the disposition of young adults who are “sick of being told what do do” – instead, it will empower them to develop preventative measures or seek support early, on the basis of an informed decision they themselves have made. Dr Nikki Wedgwood, team leader, said:

As the Year 3 Coordinator in the Bachelor of Health Science I often consult students who are struggling to cope at university sometimes due to, or resulting in, a mental health issue. As a coordinator of a large first year unit I have an opportunity to embed awareness about how to prevent, detect, de-stigmatise and address mental health issues that are common among young people, early in their degree.

For more information about the Strategic Education Grants, see the website.

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