In September 2022, the IDEA Governance Committee (IGC) initiated a review of the University’s 2016 Mental Health Strategy, which would inform a new mental health strategy.  In May 2023, the ANU officially commenced this review process. According to an ANU spokesperson, “The Taskforce aims to deliver a report by the end of May 2024. Following this there is a 12-month period to develop an Implementation Plan.”

This review comes as a standard part of the University’s periodic policy reassessment, which aims to ensure ongoing adherence to adequate standards. Woroni understands this review in particular was prompted by evolving mental health challenges, notably resulting from the global pandemic and current economic pressures.

The University specified that the Review Taskforce is “looking at prevention, ways to build a kind, strong and equal culture, systems and processes, and what services and support might be needed, either on or off campus.” Speaking to Woroni, Professor Lyndall Strazdins, Project Director for the Mental Health Strategy Review, explained that while there are evident gaps in the current 2016 Mental Health Strategy, such as the need for more counselling, the new strategy will heavily prioritise holistic intervention aiming to assist students before they reach such crisis points. 

Professor Strazdins emphasised that the strategy’s focus on prevention will necessitate an evaluation of how students and staff alike are treated within the ANU’s health system. She highlighted the importance of understanding the ANU’s operating systems as part of a relational process, saying,  “if we have an institution that is either complex, overwhelming, puzzling or kind of irrelevant, that creates quite a different impact on someone to assist them.” She explained that feedback from consultations showed staff and students have a similar experience with these bureaucratic processes. 

The new strategy shares similarities with ANU’s 2016 strategy, which also aimed to take an “institutional approach to mental health”. Speaking of the 2016 strategy, the professor emphasised that a “strength-based approach” will build upon this previous structure and address reasons certain changes were previously not implemented.

This previous mental health strategy received criticisms from students including the excessive wait times for students seeking access to counselling services, inadequate support for international students, and a lack of diverse counselling staff, notably of queer-informed practitioners. Students reported feeling unsupported overall by the university system in this regard. This model was severely impeded by financial cuts which took place across ANU.

This review gleans insights from reports such as the 2020 Australian Productivity Commission Report into Mental Health, the Boland Review, and the 2020 Australian University Mental Health Framework Orygen Report. Further, the Mental Health Strategy Review team conducted consultations in 2023 with ANU Senior Leadership, Service and Portfolio Leaders, Service Providers, Student Leadership, and some of the University’s First Nations stakeholders. 

In March and April this year, the taskforce expanded these consultations to include ANU staff and students in an open call. The Review Team offered group and individual consultations, through an online feedback form,  with the option to email written responses. 

However, there were challenges in engaging sufficient student participation. 

Mira, an undergraduate student representative for the Review, noted that “Both students and staff are bombarded with questionnaires all the time… [so the issue is] figuring out how to get peoples feedback without making it a huge monumental extra effort for them but still gives us the good data too”. 

Professor Strazdins assured that the team  had “worked really, really hard”  to engage a diverse range of staff and students, but expected that “some of the people who would really like to have input haven’t for multiple reasons… There’s massive information overload and… Students are under enormous time pressure as are staff… I don’t know that we can unfortunately fix that but I think we just have to keep open and [keep] working particularly with student leadership.”

She however, explained consultations also underscored the importance of addressing broader societal issues students and staff face daily, which have a profound impact on mental well-being. She stressed that the new strategy will actively engage in dialogues and persist in posing questions on these topics even subsequent to the implementation of the new strategy. 

In regard to the strategy’s financial backing, the professor explained that “The VC [Vice Chancellor] is very clear that she wants to see things happen.”

Whilst the formal consultation period has ended, Professor Strazdins expressed an openness to receiving further individual feedback. Students or staff wanting to provide written feedback on the current and future direction of the strategy can email the following address:  

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.