By JACKSON PECK
Monash will be covered in yellow for R U OK? Day tomorrow, with Conversation Cafes set up at the Peninsula and Parkville campuses for the first time, as well as Clayton and Caulfield, among other events and activities.
Monash mental health programs coordinator Clare Swanson says this is the biggest mental health event at the university, with more than 10,000 students participating last year.
“It’s mainly about conversations, so trying to start people having chats and not being worried about talking about … your struggles or your problems, your mental health issues,” she says.
R U OK? Day has taken place on the second Thursday of every September since 2009 and encourages people to ask their friends and family the simple question “are you okay?”, in order to start conversations about mental health.
There will be free coffee available at Conversation Cafes at Monash’s four biggest campuses and free parking available for students who take part in Carpool Conversations, an initiative started by fifth-year arts and law student Daniel O’Loughlin, one of Monash’s Mental Health Champion Program participants.
“We’re just promoting the fact that you can talk to your friends and you can check in on them in those activities that you do every day of the year,” he says.
“I think R U OK day, it’s got such a great message about connecting with those around you but people fall into a trap of thinking that you only need to ask and check in on people once a year.”
Mr O’Laughlin says the stresses faced by young people, especially university students, makes mental health awareness and promotion vital.
“I think there’s so much pressure these days to just keep adding to your schedule – your study, your work, your social life – and we’re expected to just deal with all of these added pressures.
“If you don’t realise that the support’s out there to help you manage all of those competing interests you’re bound to struggle in some way.”
CEO of online youth mental health service ReachOut Australia Jono Nicholas has supported R U OK? Day since it began.
“Asking R U OK? is super important for everyone – especially as one in four young people are living with a mental health difficulty,” he says.
“Rates of mental illness and suicide remain high. There’s a range of things that affect mental health, and some of the best things you can do to boost yours are to exercise regularly, surround yourself with supportive people, set aside time every day to relax.”
One of the biggest mental health surveys conducted among university students in Australia showed that last year nearly 70 per cent of students described their mental health as poor or fair, and that two-thirds said they had experienced high or very high psychological distress in the previous year.
Ms Swanson encourages students to seek help if they need it but says many students don’t know about Monash’s mental health services.
Mr O’Loughlin agrees that promotion of the university’s mental health services needs to improve, but says that the bigger and longer-term problem is the perceived shame around mental health more broadly.
“I think awareness is part of it but I do still think that there’s quite a strong stigma around mental health and around accessing services for mental health issues.
“It’s not so much increasing awareness about availability of services but it’s reinforcing the message that seeking assistance at these services isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a really powerful thing to recognise when you need help.”
Monash provides free face-to-face and telephone counselling services and a range of different wellbeing programs.
Mr O’laughlin says Monash has “incredible services” but they could be emphasised more on a day-to-day basis.
“So not viewing mental health programs as an add-on to university life but as central to everyday uni life, so including it more in classrooms and in orientations and sort of just making the message more persistent.”
Applications for Monash’s 2018 Mental Health Champions Program opens during Mental Health Week, October 9 – October 13.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, seek support by contacting Monash’s counselling services or youth mental health agencies such as ReachOut and headspace, or a support service such as beyondblue.