A Broken System: Mental Health Support at the ANU

Content Warning: This article contains express mention of mental health issues and institutional betrayal.

With the stress of exams, social life, work, the future and living away from home, mental health has always been important to University students. This significance has only increased during the pandemic and the current ACT lockdown and raises the question of whether the ANU’s ongoing mental health support for students is adequate to support its students. 

Mental health issues have always been prevalent amongst University students. A 2017 report by Headspace and the National Union of Students found that 70% of university students labelled their mental health as “poor or fair”. Two thirds of the respondents reported high or very high psychological distress in the past 12 months. In Australia, the 18-24 age demographic, which covers most undergraduate university students, had the second highest level of mental health related emergency department presentations at 209 per 10,000 people. 

Mental health issues have only exacerbated during the pandemic. ANU Professor Phillip Batterham told the Guardian that while most academics agree that lockdown is likely to have a negative effect on mental health, it is hard to find data on this, particularly as many mental health issues go unreported. 

For students seeking help with mental health issues, the ANU offers two services: ANU Counselling and ANU Thrive.

International Students

The majority of the ANU’s international students are currently overseas, and many unfortunately struggle to engage with the broader ANU community. At the moment, students overseas are unable to use ANU Counselling, their only resource is ANU Thrive. Thrive is not a medical counselling service, it is a student-led wellbeing program that offers consultations for students to talk about anything troubling them. 

Several international students have reported seeking support from the ANU, only to be referred to ANU Thrive which they’ve found unhelpful. One student said the resources ANU recommended were “… just moral supports, you have to get through [it] yourself…”. Moreover, some international students who have been able to access ANU Counselling said a lack of diversity and training amongst staff creates a lack of cultural understanding. In response to these claims, a Spokesperson for the University stated that “all ANU students have access to free mental health support through ANU student services, including access to counselling through ANU Counselling”, however “the professional psychologist accreditation that [the ANU] counsellors hold means that they are prohibited from providing counselling services to students located outside of Australia, even when that students is enrolled with an Australian university”. 

ANUSA Vice-President Christian Flynn commented on a post in ANU Schmidtposting, stating that there are “legal barriers for Australian counsellors and psychologists providing counselling to students currently residing overseas”, and has been pushing for the ANU to “commit to a real support plan for all students”. 

ANU Counselling: Issues with the System

There are several areas of complaints that students have surrounding ANU Counselling. While many students do find the counsellors helpful, those who come with more specific or sensitive issues often do not find the assistance they are seeking. One ANU student, for instance, believes ANU Counselling should have more Queer informed counselling. Another noted that during their session, the counsellor did not understand aromanticism or asexuality, and told the student the topic was “fascinating.” Several students want to see more appointments available, and shorter waiter times. One student wants recurring appointments “…without being shamed that you are using resources”.

A longstanding issue with ANU Counselling has been wait times for appointments. In July, ANU Counselling told Woroni that they had appointments as early as one week away, and that wait times were on average 3 weeks for returning patients. However, student testimonies vary on wait times. Several victims of drink spiking who tried to get an appointment at ANU Counselling encountered wait times of around a month. One person who sought an appointment in April couldn’t get a booking until August. 

One issue surrounding wait times is the problem of crises. In the ACT there exist several services for mental health crises, such as the ER, as well as various hotlines. However, the nature of some student’s mental health issues mean that they may be crises, but not in the medical sense of the word. People who have had a traumatising experience, such as drink spiking, or SASH incidents, may require counselling in the days and weeks after the events, without it qualifying as a ‘crisis’. More innocuous, students pushed to the brink and stressed by exams would benefit from an appointment with a short wait time, but report they are unlikely to get this at ANU Counselling. 

An ANU Spokesperson stated that the claim of extensive wait-times isn’t “borne out by the evidence or the facts”, and said that “current average wait times for counselling at ANU fluctuate between 10-15 days. In fact, general wait times are currently half of what they were at the same time last year”. The Spokesperson qualified that this, however, “doesn’t include urgent, next-day bookings for students in critical need. Anyone who urgently needs to see a counsellor is triaged so that they have immediate access to counselling”. 

The Spokesperson highlighted that “wait times at ANU are significantly and dramatically less than elsewhere. For example, a recent survey of about 1,000 members of peak body, the Australian Psychological Society, found that more than half currently have a wait time of more than three months or were not taking on new clients. Prior to the pandemic, 82 per cent were able to see a new client within two months”.

ANUSA General Representative, Cat Yeong, undertook a study of ANU Counselling and determined, with student consultation, nine concerns that underpin the complaints of ANU Counselling. The first of these concerns is that “ANU Counselling is overwhelmed and understaffed”. Yeong’s report stated that “ANU Counselling has been overwhelmed … understaffed and ill-equipped” to manage student wellbeing. She further raised the concern that ANU Counselling is unable “to cater to student counselling needs”, citing that “there is no section [on the registration form] which allows for students to state what they seek counselling services for or the level of therapeutic care they desire”. Yeong stated that a “lack of security and safety around registering student requests … places students at risk”. Further, Yeong writes that there is a distinct lack of cultural sensitivity, and the counsellors are “ill equipped to deal with matters of cultural sensitivity and experiences”, causing the service to become “inaccessible” to BIPOC students.  

Yeong also highlighted issues students face when booking appointments, stating that there is a “lack of awareness of services and resources” available, and that the ANU Counselling website is “inaccessible for many students”. Furthermore, there is a significant “lack of available appointments” and a “lack of appointment reminders”. 

These issues are compounded by an increase in funding cuts and a lack of University support. In response to these problems, many students have sought support from alternative means, such as speaking to their student leaders at residential halls which leads to an increase in SR overload. Yeong writes that “SRs and the like are frequently burnt out and overwhelmed by the amount of disclosures they receive and are often incidentally placed into a role of counsellor”. 

Funding Cuts

In the wake of the significant funding cuts enacted across the ANU following the $164m loss in revenue in 2020, significant budget changes have impacted the availability of student services. The Respectful Relations Unit (RRU) saw a $124,000 increase in staff funding, but a decrease of $8,000 in operational costs. ANU Counselling had its staffing budget slashed by $100,000, and their operating costs reduced by $25,550. ANU Thrive, the only counselling service available to international students, had its staffing costs reduced by $97,000, and their operational costs cut down by a further $25,000. An ANU Spokesperson stated that this funding decrease can be attributed to another “long-term source [of funding] because of the importance of these roles”, and said that “ANU Thrive is an important program for our community and the University remains committed to it”. However, this means that almost every one of the ANU’s mental health resources and services have seen at least part of their budget reduced during one of the most severe mental health crises of the last 20 years. 

When asked by Woroni whether funding will be increased in 2022 for mental health services, a Spokesperson for the University stated that “funding for mental health services at ANU remains consistently high and well above sector standards. Mental health is a key priority at ANU and will continue to be so”. Furthermore, the ANU is “looking to expand its Student Safety and Wellbeing Team to provide more individual case managers, and improve [its] response to Student Critical Incidents and survivors of SASH”.

ANU Crisis Policies

With reduced funding for mental health services on the ANU campus, much attention has been focussed on the scope of the ANU’s mental health policies. The Student Critical Incident procedure outlined in the ANU’s policy library states that the first point of call for students facing a confirmed or perceived crisis (including mental health crises) is to call emergency services via 000 and to report the incident to ANU Security. This triggers a risk assessment and welfare check protocol involving the Manager of Student Incidents, who must then “contact relevant internal and external stakeholders and allocate them roles and responsibilities, including the provision of counselling support to those directly affected by the incident”. The policy makes no explicit mention of connecting students in crisis with ANU mental health services. 

ANU Resources

An ANU Spokesperson stated that  “[s]tudent safety and wellbeing, including mental health, is one of the University’s highest priorities”, and that the “ANU takes its duty of care for all members of our community seriously”. The University has implemented numerous processes and “support programs in place to assist any students who may need assistance”. Such services include the 24/7 ANU Wellbeing and Support line, which provides confidential and free personal crisis counselling services, ANU Thrive which allows student to “discuss anything of concern,” the TalkCampus app which connects students with students from other universities experiences similar challenges, and the ANU Counselling Centre. 

Another Spokesperson stated that “as part of the delivery of remote learning in 2020 and hybrid learning in 2021, student services have increased support options and avenues for students”. The University has “increased support materials online, deployed online learning modules to help support students in developing good habits and practices to help with positive mental health and wellbeing, Zoom-based ANU Thrive sessions, Set4ANU and peer support connections”. 

Aside from the ANU Counselling Service, none of the services listed on the ANU website connect students with medically-trained mental health professionals. Further, some students told Woroni that they were unaware of these resources that are provided free of charge to students. 

All students have been made anonymous to protect their identity. 

This article forms part of a Woroni series focusing on the quality of wellbeing and pastoral care services available to ANU students living on and off campus.

If you or anyone you know is affected by the content of this piece, please contact one of the support services below:

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Crisis Line
(02) 6247 2525

ANU Counselling
(02) 6125 2442

1800 RESPECT
1800 737 732

ANU Women’s Department
sa.womens@anu.edu.au

ANU Queer* Department
sa.queer@anu.edu.au

ANU Respectful Relationships Unit
respect@anu.edu.au