Judith Marychurch, Assistant Dean – Teaching & Learning
This year -even more than in a ‘normal’ year – we really do need to pay attention to our own mental health and the mental health of those around us (and by ‘around’, I don’t just mean physically, but those we know, especially if they are in lockdown on their own). We are all feeling the strain of months in lockdown where we are confined to the four walls where we live, and now where we work, study and pursue any leisure activities (if we have any energy left after everything else). So make sure you take any opportunity you can to connect with your peers, your colleagues, your friends and your family!
The annual R U OK Day, this year on 10 September, seeks to remind us to check in with peers, colleagues, friends and family. If we all do this, we reduce stigma of mental illness and support people we care about. The statistics for mental health illness support the importance of asking ‘R U OK?’: approximately 25 percent of University students in any given year are likely to experience mental ill-health in some respect, most commonly anxiety and depression, compared to 20 percent in the general population. Legal professionals tend to experience mental ill health at a much higher rate of closer to two in five.
One of the most concerning statistics is the low number of people who seek and receive treatment for mental illness compared with physical illness, despite excellent success rates for those who do engage in treatment for mental illness. Approximately half of those who do suffer from mental illness seek medical help, although 75 percent of those who do receive treatment improve noticeably, according to the Black Dog Institute.
I mention these statistics to show just how important having a conversation with someone about how they are going is; and with the unique challenges we are facing this year, the statistics are likely worse, not better. This means that R U OK Day is even more relevant than ever, as is the message that we need to be willing to both ask the question and to really listen to the answer we receive, not just today, but every day.
Knowing the audience for this short piece is primarily students at MLS, I also want to remind you of the services you can access. Please know there is no stigma from the University’s perspective in seeking help if you are experiencing mental ill-health. The services provided are available to any student; there is no limit on numbers and each application is assessed on a case by case basis. And the University does not disclose this information to anyone else except in the rare situation where a student’s health issues mean they may be a danger to themselves or to others.
If you need short-term support, which can be useful after experiencing a loss of some form, such as a relationship ending or the passing of someone we care about, you can access free, short-term counselling with the University’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) team, who can provide supporting documentation for extensions or special consideration (for JD students and MLM students). If things are more ongoing in nature, the best thing to do is to see a GP who can provide an initial diagnosis and also referral to community based counsellors via Medicare or, for international students, to services available via their Overseas Student Health Cover (OSHC). CAPS or the University’s Health Service can provide referrals.
If an ongoing mental health issue is diagnosed, students should then apply for special consideration (ongoing support), which provides students with tailored academic adjustments to support their studies for the duration of the impact of the condition, anywhere from six weeks to the duration of their studies. Common adjustments include the availability of extensions of up to 10 working days on essays and assignments; access to class recordings or other adjustments where class attendance is impacted; alternative exam arrangements, such as extra time per hour, or rest breaks, or smaller rooms; and reduction in study load (including for international students). This is not an exhaustive list, and tailored supports can be developed where required, so long as these are reasonable and do not compromise the inherent requirements of the course of study.
The majority of registrations for special consideration (ongoing support) are for mental illness. Registration is not disclosed to your teachers unless there is a specific need, such as a case where something may occur in a classroom situation that the teacher needs to be able to manage; in such a case, we would discuss with the student what should be disclosed and how this is done. Otherwise, everything is handled ‘behind the scenes’ and we have processes in place to maintain anonymity for students. Staff like the Student Academic Adjustment & Wellbeing Officer, the Assessment team and the Assistant Dean – Teaching & Learning manage these processes, liaising with other staff where necessary to put appropriate arrangements in place. They maintain confidentiality of information unless there is a clear need to disclose, in which case this is normally discussed with the student. The student’s safety and the safety of others is of paramount importance and this would normally be the only case where we may have to take action without advising the student (this is very rare).
A Special Note For Our International Students
I do want to say something particular to our international student community here, as there are often additional concerns about diagnosis of a mental health issue. The University of Melbourne respects the privacy of students’ personal information, which is kept confidential and subject to the protections of relevant privacy laws. As noted above, there is a rare exception where the information pertains to harm that may occur to you or someone else.
If you have a health or medical issue, including a mental health issue, the most important thing to do is to seek professional help. The University provides an extensive range of services to all our students and is committed to helping students succeed in their studies trough appropriate supports. I encourage any student, including our international students, to seek support if they need it. There are rules in place to make sure assistance is provided fairly and equitably. I am happy to discuss options with students if they are unsure about what to do, and it is OK to ask for help!
If you experience a health issue that impacts your learning, seeking a professional opinion and obtaining a health professional report illustrates that you are taking initiative to improve your condition, and helps staff identify what options may work best for you, such as special consideration, reduced study load or leave of absence. The aim of these supports is to help you to succeed and prevent you from failing subjects, and therefore not make satisfactory progress in your course (which is a breach of visa conditions). Seeking help to address the impact of a health issue on your learning is therefore very important, and is unlikely to negatively impact on visa eligibility.
The contents of discussions you have with a treating practitioner, such as a doctor, counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist are covered by client confidentiality. If you request a letter or Health Professional Report (HPR) from a treating practitioner to support an application for an extension, special consideration, reduction in study load or leave of absence, you can discuss with your practitioner what you are happy to disclose, bearing in mind that you need evidence to support your eligibility for the relevant application. International students, and particularly sponsored students, should ensure that they read all documentation relevant to their Visa and their sponsorship to ensure there are aware of any reporting requirements.
If you need advice about what to do and what supports are available to you if you are experiencing any concerns relating to your mental wellbeing or how to manage your studies to help you manage or maintain good mental health, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or the Assistant Dean – Teaching & Learning email@example.com. And don’t forget that the “R U OK?” message is just as relevant every day as on R U OK Day, and even more in this strange year!! We are all in this together – just imagine the encouragement we could offer if we all reached out to two friends, colleagues or family members! For my part, I am reaching out to you now – and if you are not OK and need some help managing your studies, please get in touch with me.
If anything in this article has resonated with you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
You can contact Judith by email: firstname.lastname@example.org,
and the Wellbeing team: email@example.com