WARNING: This article is about mental health and may be distressing for some readers.

Tertiary students are failing to reach their potential because of the mental health crisis, the national president of the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations says.

Jonathan Gee was commenting on New Zealand-first research which says 56 per cent of tertiary students who responded had considered dropping out of study. The most common reasons were feeling overwhelmed, mental illness and fear of failure.

"We know that mental health is a serious issue among our students, as it is in society," said Gee.

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"This research gives us a better understanding about why student mental health issues occur and the implications of this."

The Kei Te Pai? Report was commissioned by the Union. It was drafted in consultation with experts in students' mental health and counsellors and trialled with students, counsellors and wellbeing advisers.

Students in tertiary institutions - universities, institutes of technology and polytechnics, wānanga, public providers and private training establishments - were invited to take part.

The online survey, launched last October, included questions on demographics, education, employment, expenses, relationships, drug and alcohol use and more.

There were also sections on the causes of stress, depression and anxiety, the respondents' history of mental health and their experiences with mental health support services at their tertiary institutions.

The survey was available for one month and 1762 tertiary students took part. The majority were aged 16 to 25, Pākehā or New Zealand Europeans and Māori.

Gee said tertiary education had become a "highly individualised experience" and a "means to an end rather than an end in itself. The pressure to succeed means that we have forgotten the important role of tertiary education in building community."

Students enter tertiary education because they have high hopes for themselves, and for their contribution to New Zealand, he added.

"In order to help students succeed in their future endeavours, we must address the mental health crisis that is stopping students from reaching their full potential."

Gee said the whole country should take notice of the research.

"Our future teachers, nurses, engineers and entrepreneurs have opened up about the stresses and factors which affect their academic success. Addressing student mental health is important for students and important for New Zealand.

"It must be noted that this opt-in survey is not necessarily representative of all tertiary students in New Zealand. However, it does provide an important insight into the stresses and factors that impact students' mental health."

Chris Whelan, executive director of Universities New Zealand, the "sector voice" for the eight Kiwi universities, noted the "opt-in survey" was responded to by fewer than 0.5 per cent of the more than 400,000 tertiary students in New Zealand.

Whelan said the results told an interesting story for those who self-identified, but couldn't really be extrapolated to the wider university population.

"A university is the size of - and has many of the issues of - a small town, including issues of mental distress. Generally the numbers of those accessing support services in universities are similar to those in the same age range in the general community."

Gee acknowledged the survey was not necessarily representative of all tertiary students but said it provided an important insight into the stresses and factor that affect their mental health.

The report cites overseas research that concludes tertiary students are more likely to experience higher levels of psychological distress than younger age groups and non-students.

Gee said the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, launched in January as part of the Labour-led Government 100-day plan, was a prime opportunity for a national conversation about a "much-discussed and cared-about issue".

He called for change in four areas.

First, making sure the needs of students were considered in the mental health conversation. Gee said that should include work to ease the transition from secondary school.

"This transition is accompanied with various social and academic demands that may trigger a student's senses of depression, stress and anxiety. It can be a daunting decision to decide to further one's education and more support is needed to help high school students prepare for the transition into tertiary study life."

Second, Gee hoped Kei Te Pai? would start a nationwide conversation about student mental health and wellbeing.

"Part of our purpose for carrying out this research was to de-stigmatise mental health and to show students that they are not alone when it comes to struggling with mental health."

Third, a tailored approach to mental health that took account of the needs of minority groups such as sexual minorities and gender minorities who were "more susceptible to high levels of psychological distress".

And finally, increasing funding and resourcing for student mental health support.

"The Government's commitment to free counselling for under 25s is an important one. Currently, tertiary counselling services are 100 per cent funded by the student, through a Compulsory Student Services Fee (CSSF) that they pay to their institutions. It is clear that 116 counselling services are under strain, with a limited number of counsellors and long waiting times, more resources are needed for these services. It is important that support services remain as barrier-free as possible as those who need the most help are often unlikely use services when barriers such as cost and wait times are put in front of them."

Acting Health Minister Jenny Salesa said the Government understood and recognised the pressures faced by many tertiary students which are detailed in the report.

"That's why, in this year's Budget, we allocated $10.5 million over the next three years for the Integrated Therapies Pilot for 18-25 year olds. The initiative, which is part of the Labour-Green Confidence and Supply Agreement, will provide free counselling for those under 25 years old. Work is underway to establish the pilot and it's expected to go live later this year. The pilot will provide valuable information to inform further work in this space."

Gee hoped the survey would be repeated, but said the NZUSA was a "very lean organization" and might be able to do so only every 2-3 years.

Kate Aschoff says tertiary students struggling with their mental health should keep fighting for help until they get what they need.
Kate Aschoff says tertiary students struggling with their mental health should keep fighting for help until they get what they need.

HOPE FROM SOMEONE WHO'S BEEN THERE:

Become your own advocate, don't give up and accept stress is normal.

That's the key advice for students with mental health concerns from someone who's been through major pressure themselves.

Kate Aschoff is taking at least a year out from a degree in sociology and theatre at the Victoria University of Wellington.

After "barely" getting through a stressful first year, Aschoff decided on a break at the start of the second.

After suffering from mental illness since the age of 14, Aschoff found the high-stress, high-pressure university environment exacerbated existing symptoms.

The pressure of study, worrying about having to get a job at the end of the course and financial concerns were all factors.

"It felt like I was learning lines to put down in an exam and get things marked off and I wasn't there to actually deeply understand concepts that I was interested in and it was the way the pressure that was put on passing exams and grades and the way lecturers interacted with students and the way the university interacted with students."

Aschoff believed the quality of counselling services wasn't necessarily the problem, more the difficulty accessing them.

"A lot of students accessing those services are accessing them for academic –related reasons because they're feeling stressed and anxiety and under stress and becoming ill from the pressure of being at university rather than the services being accessed by students who are ill.

"You do have to become your own advocate. It's not easy to get that support and it's really important to lean on people around you and learn to speak up for yourself and be like, 'actually, no I do deserve this help, I do deserve this support and I am going to push to get it', because the system is so underfunded it's so easy to be quickly dismissed from it and just be written off and, quite frankly, ignored. Push hard to get the help you want. It takes months, sometimes longer.

"I think also just acknowledging, especially for students in the university space, that a lot of the stress they're feeling is normal. I personally think that the university space is quite a toxic and unhealthy environment that does breed a lot of unnatural anxiety and stress and I think it's important for students to know that it's not a lack of their worth if they're struggling, that it's actually on how that system is running and it's up to them as student s to choose how they want to operate within that system."

During the break from study, Aschoff is doing community work with InsideOUT, an organisation working with queer students in high schools, professional development and "art-related stuff".

That's with a view to getting mental health to the point where Aschoff can make a call on whether to return to university.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your local GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (available 24/7)
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 ,free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat.
NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
SAMARITANS – 0800 726 666.