'Woeful' University Mental Health Services Slammed After Student's Death

Students at Melbourne's RMIT have called out "under-equipped" support services, claiming weeks-long delays in getting an appointment and a lack of support.

"RMIT is a massive uni, but the reality is their support services are woeful," Seb Starcevic, a former student who said he left the university in 2018 due to what he saw as a lack of support, told 10 daily.

"In my first few weeks, I was feeling super isolated and depressed. I’d just moved to Melbourne from regional Victoria and was struggling with my mental health. I tried to contact RMIT’s counselling service... I desperately needed help but was told I’d have to wait weeks to see a professional."

"They didn’t take my name or student ID and didn’t offer to call me back. At that point, I was feeling suicidal for one of the first times in my life, and being wait-listed didn’t help."

Photo: Facebook

Support services at RMIT have come under the spotlight in recent weeks following the death of one student and injuries to another in separate incidents at the same building within four days. RMIT offered mental health support to witnesses, and other students and staff, following the August 5 and 8 incidents.

"Mental health and wellbeing is an ongoing challenge for many people in our community," RMIT said in a statement following the second incident.

"We acknowledge the pressures of university life are real, just as they are in the other parts of our lives, and we know the events of this week will affect everyone differently."

However, multiple former and current RMIT students have complained that the university failed to properly inform the campus community until well afterwards, raised concerns about the response, and spoke more widely about difficulty accessing vital support.

Photo: Facebook

"It’s hard to determine what RMIT’s response was. It felt diffuse: posts on social media and an email," James*, a student studying a Bachelor of IT, told 10 daily.

"The email felt sincere but really just offered condolences and listed phone numbers for Lifeline. There was no emphasised explanation of what sort of support RMIT was offering or what channels there were for it. That mass email is the only contact I’ve had."

The university posted several tweets, a Facebook update and an email after the incidents. However, many students who spoke to 10 daily claimed they didn't receive those communications until well after the incidents, after they'd already learned about them through friends or news reporting.

"The uni could have done a lot more after the initial incident than just chuck a post up on Facebook saying 'there was a fatality at Building 80' and putting the number for Lifeline below. It literally took three days for them to email us with an official statement," one student said.

Uni students need special attention paid to their mental health, an expert said. Photo: Getty.

Nearly 87,000 students were enrolled at RMIT in 2018.

10 daily sent RMIT a detailed set of questions about its communications and response to the two incidents. In a statement, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education and Vice-President Professor Belinda Tynan replied "out of respect for the families and people involved, we will not be commenting specifically on the events or decisions of last week."

"The topic of mental health is complex, so our people continue to work with leading organisations including Prevention United, Headspace and Orygen as we seek to deliver the best possible ongoing support," she said.

Many students were upset that support was initially provided in the same building where the incidents occurred. RMIT defended this, saying the "immediate priority" was assisting witnesses, with support "temporarily" placed there "to ensure [services] were placed in the area of greatest and most immediate need."

Photo: Getty

More generally, however, past and present students have said RMIT's support services -- while well-advertised and known on campus -- were under-resourced and prone to long delays.

Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, found in a 2017 report that at least one in four uni students will experience mental ill-health in any given year; that the issue suffered from "a lack of government policy attention and resources"; and that universities were at the time seeing an "increase in demand, complexity and severity of mental ill-health in students".

Orygen is currently developing an Australian University Mental Health Framework, planned for launch in 2020.

One student, Max*, told 10 daily he had tried to make an appointment with support services to request deferral of his exams, due to personal reasons.

"I have to miss a class to make the counselling session as it was the only one available for three weeks. I honestly thought the online booking tool was broken when I tried to use it, because nothing came up," he said.

Associate Professor Jo Robinson, a suicide prevention expert with the Orygen, did not wish to pass judgement on RMIT specifically but said universities generally nationwide had an important role in providing support.

More focus should be placed on mental health of university students, experts say. Photo: Getty Images.

"A lot of our mental health interventions are around high schools, but the majority of young people who take their lives do it after leaving school. We need much more hands-on support once they leave school," she told 10 daily.

"We need really widespread, widely-available counselling in uni settings. Most unis do have wellbeing or counselling services, and while I can't comment on the quality or nature of those, there's long waiting lists and access issues.

Robinson said much university assistance had "a lot of reliance on a person coming forward and seeking help", and said there should be far more proactive outreach work done by campus support staff to identify people having a hard time.

She said there had not been any authoritative research in Australia on the psychological issues faced specifically by international students -- who may face additional issues like language barriers and homesickness -- but some was in the early stages of being carried out.

"Universities need to be keeping a close eye on students, and fostering a culture of students being able to say 'I'm not doing well'," Robinson said.

"Anecdotally, [international students] appear to be over-represented in suicide stats among uni students."

Students have been trying to access support. Photo: Getty

Tynan said in her statement "the health and wellbeing of every RMIT student and staff member is, and always will be, our top priority."

"We will continue to undertake targeted action to enhance student wellbeing and build our community’s capability to respond," she said.

RMIT's website shows a range of support services, including special considerations for assessments; an on-campus drop-in centre; phone and online support including web chat; and free in-person counselling appointments. The uni's website warns appointments "are highly sought after", and many students told 10 daily they had to wait several days or weeks to secure an appointment.

James* told 10 daily he missed a lot of classes in recent years due to what he described as "suicidal depression", but it was only at a meeting with supervisors to discuss his failing grades that he was told about university support -- a situation he called "ridiculous".

"I ended up leaving the course because I didn’t feel supported, and at a time when I could barely speak to another person, it felt like the onus was entirely on me to reach out," he said.

Photo: Getty

Seb said he had several lecturers who were very supportive and understanding, but found the university's services "woeful".

"It’s a problem when academic staff are forced to pick up the slack because the uni’s official services are under-equipped," he said.

"I reached out to uni counselling one morning in the midst of a panic attack, they told me they couldn’t fit me in for a number of days... they just went silent and said bye."

10 daily contacted the RMIT student union for this story, but did not receive a response to enquiries.

* - names have been changed at request of students.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.