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Distress and Well-Being Among University Students Is Everyone’s Business

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Psychological distress is becoming an everyday experience for university students. Expecting students to deal with their distress on their own is not an effective approach for reducing this distress, nor is relying on counselling services or academic educators. Instead, addressing issues of distress – and well-being – is a job for the entire university.

Recently, several studies have reported high prevalence and severity of psychological distress among university student cohorts – higher in prevalence and severity than the general population. This is particularly concerning considering that distress is often associated with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress, and that ongoing experiences of distress can reduce cognitive functions important for learning, such as memory, attention, concentration, impulse control, and planning.

The prevalence and severity of psychological distress are relatively consistent across different universities, disciplines and year-level cohorts. As such, there is a growing consensus that universities are the ideal place, if not the necessary place, to address this issue.

Alongside discussions about student distress are conversations around enhancing students’ well-being. Considering that well-being is associated with experiences conducive to learning and productivity, such as autonomy, competence, and motivation, the desire to enhance students’ well-being seems almost intuitive.

This desire is also fuelled by researchers and educators who locate distress and well-being as opposite ends of a single spectrum, so that high distress was associated with low well-being and vice versa. Locating distress and well-being as opposites implies that campaigns to improve well-being will automatically mitigate distress. However, others argue that well-being and distress are not in fact opposites.

Both concepts are complicated and multi-dimensional, therefore locating psychological well-being and distress as opposites along a single dimension is potentially an inaccurate simplification. This distinction has important implications for addressing levels of students’ distress, because campaigns that improve well-being will potentially differ from campaigns that reduce distress.

Regardless of whether distress and well-being are opposites or separate, multidimensional concepts, both are likely to have positive outcomes for students: addressing issues of distress can help those most in need and prepare others for similarly difficult times; enhancing well-being can help students to reach their full academic potential and become productive and socially-invested community leaders. As Orme and Dooris argue, universities have enormous potential to effect positive cultural change. Although I’m focusing this discussion on university students, the need for an institution-wide approach also applies to issues of staff well-being and distress, and to other employment contexts; especially those in which distress, burnout or low productivity are commonplace.

There are currently exceptional resources and programs addressing student distress and/or well-being. These include programmes by counselling services and online programmes aimed at enhancing students’ self-management. They also include curriculum and teaching practices that prepare students for difficult periods or enhance students’ self-care. However, when these programs occur in isolation from other systems within the university, they struggle to find widespread impact or reach levels of sustainability.

In contrast, institution-wide approaches can have widespread impact and sustainability. Theoretically, these approaches draw on ecological models of development, which posit that the various systems in which a person lives support and constrain their development, therefore values that are shared by multiple systems are likely to be taken on by the person as their own.

Examples of such approaches include framework for an institution-wide approach to well-being, and the exemplar UK Healthy Universities. In action for over a decade, the UK Healthy Universities embeds messages about overall health, well-being, and sustainability across the university: in university central policies, faculty curriculum, campus design, extra-curricular services and programmes, and campus transport.

The campaign has required investment and commitment from various stakeholders within the university: university leaders, teaching staff, professional staff, on-campus services, and students themselves. Endorsing these values in every context of the university increases the opportunity for students to take these values on for themselves, and carry those values with them beyond graduation.

The success of these approaches is evident in students’ widespread uptake of these values as part of their own identities. Similar success in addressing issues of students’ psychological distress is not yet evident.

The issue of student distress requires universities’ attention. The high prevalence and severity are not likely to dissipate without intervention, and will likely have ongoing consequences not only for the distressed student but for the wider community. Successfully engaging with this issue will require further scrutiny regarding the relationship between distress and well-being, and commitments from universities to implement institution-wide approaches that address issues of student distress.

Abi Brooker holds a PhD in psychology and a graduate certificate in university teaching, both from the University of Melbourne. 

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