One in five (20.1%) or 4.8 million Australians suffer from a mental or behavioural condition, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2018. With pandemic-related stress becoming a major issue in the last 20 months, prioritising student mental health and wellbeing is more important than ever.
According to the current Wellness Coordinator for Arc @ UNSW, Marie Echevarria (Bachelor of Actuarial Studies, 2021), there are actions students can take to help prioritise their mental health, alongside other commitments.
UNSW Business School spoke with Marie Echevarria to discuss how UNSW students have been affected by mental health issues, what steps they are taking to stay connected and why it is okay to take a break sometimes.
In your experience, what do you think are the biggest barriers for students when it comes to protecting their mental wellbeing?
I think it’s crucial to first acknowledge that talking to someone about your own mental health can be difficult, and not to feel discouraged or defeated because of that. In my opinion, the most significant barrier for students managing their mental wellbeing is the stigma surrounding mental health and seeking support from your personal network or from professional services.
We have definitely come a long way as a society with regards to prioritising mental health equally to physical health, but there remains hesitation on addressing its significance and the impact it can have on your daily life. As a result, many people are left without receiving the help they need.
University students especially are under a lot of stress with expectations of completing assessments, getting good grades, being a competitive job applicant, thinking about their future after graduation and much more. These commitments compound and may leave students with insufficient time to prioritise themselves, connect with their support network and recharge in order to be ready for the next task at hand. It can often feel like life is coming at you non-stop.
Acknowledging that it is okay to have a break and it is okay not to be okay is something that still needs to be addressed, and its importance encouraged.
Why is it important for students to prioritise their own mental health and wellbeing alongside their studies?
From my observations, students often neglect their mental health due to juggling a myriad of things like academic work at university, part-time jobs, social and family life. As a result mental and physical health can decline. Mental health is an undervalued but incredibly important part of your overall wellbeing which impacts your ability to perform optimally day-to-day.
Being a university student provides you with so many opportunities to gain new experiences, meet new people and learn new insights, but if aspects of your mental health and wellbeing are neglected it becomes easy for new opportunities and day-to-day activities, like attending your lectures and tutorials, to become overwhelming and difficult rather than enjoyable and fulfilling.
The important thing to remember is to give yourself the time and space to figure out what works for you, as you can’t force or rush the process of understanding how to balance priorities.
What has your experience been like as the Wellness Coordinator for Arc @ UNSW and how it has changed during the COVID-19 lockdown?
I started as an Arc Wellness Warrior volunteer back in Term 2 in 2020, as I wanted to make good use of my increased free time during lockdown. For the majority of the year, I was volunteering online by activating events and livestreams, gathering resources like our latest ‘How to Adult’ series made for Stress Less Week and sharing support services to the UNSW community.
In 2021, I continued as a Volunteer Lead at Arc Wellness where our team had more opportunities to hold events in person and talk to students around campus. I eventually became a Wellness Coordinator during the most recent lockdown in July 2021. In doing this role, I have had more involvement on the logistics of events and driving the vision for the Wellness program to facilitate its growth and impact. I also manage my team of 10 Volunteer Leads (who each guide the 120 Wellness volunteers at Arc) and engage regularly with the broader volunteer community.
Although my experience as a Wellness Coordinator in lockdown is less interactive than in-person, I can still jump into a Zoom catch up and facilitate online events to stay connected to those students engaging with our initiatives. I find this very fulfilling.
What were some of your biggest learnings about mental health and wellbeing as Wellness Coordinator for Arc @ UNSW?
Being the Wellness Coordinator has taught me a lot about how I can improve managing my own emotional intelligence. This role has made me more aware of my stress levels, feelings, emotions and personal capacity, and at what point I need to pause and take some time for myself. We have a phrase at Wellness that goes, “You can’t pour from an empty cup”.
It has also taught me how important it is to have a community of supportive family, peers and workmates around you.
On a practical note, the role also meant I became an accredited Mental Health First Aider. Arc provides Mental Health First Aid training, (it’s available to all UNSW students but is recommended in particular for student volunteers and leaders), which taught me a lot. I learnt more about how to support other students in their day-to-day, as well as being a first responder for students in distress.
Have you seen any resources from Arc @ UNSW or your student peers that would be a good resource on wellbeing?
The Arc Wellness website has lots of webpages with resources on academic, physical and mental wellbeing, but in particular, the Wellness Resource booklet is a great one! This is the booklet that we give students at events and activations on campus and is a great resource with information, exercises and activities to help support the wellbeing of students. It is simple to read, easy to digest and serves as a quick reminder to think about your wellness.
I first received this booklet in my first year before I became a volunteer when some Wellness Warriors approached a group of my friends and told us about the Wellness program run by Arc @ UNSW. It genuinely encouraged us to connect and start a great conversation about how we were going in terms of our own mental health.
Marie is a final year Actuarial Studies student who is currently working as one of the 2021 Wellness Coordinators for Arc @ UNSW.
You can find out tips, information, podcasts and resources about mental health and wellbeing for students on the Arc @ UNSW Wellness website.
If you would like to speak to someone, the following services are also available:
24-Hour Crisis Support
UNSW Specific Services