Roseworthy students at risk due to “limited” campus mental health services, say campaigners

UofA’s rural campus currently does not have a dedicated psychologist or counselling team, despite a mental health crisis amongst vets

Warning: Story contains mentions of suicide and eating disorders, and images of persons who are now deceased

A student-led campaign is currently underway to improve mental health services at the university’s Roseworthy campus, located north of Adelaide.

Claire Bensted is one of the cofounders of the Australian Veterinary Students for Mental Health (AVSMH), a group that is working to improve mental health outcomes for veterinary students across Australia.

The group has been spearheading a campaign for more resources at the rural campus.

“Currently, Roseworthy doesn’t have a dedicated psychologist or counselling team,” Claire says.

“We have a student support officer who works limited days and can help students with access plans (which are specific for the veterinary degree) but can’t provide ongoing support.”

Roseworthy veterinary student Claire Bensted.

Veterinary students have been heavily affected by the lack of mental health support. The Roseworthy campus is an hour away from the city, making access to services difficult and time-consuming, often clashing with their classes.

Research from AVSHM highlights how dire the situation is. A recent study found that 8% of Roseworthy respondants have experienced suicidal ideation or have attempted suicide. Across other vet schools in Australia, responses reveal that these same issues only make up 0.3%

Tragically, in September this year, Dr. Sophie Putland, a veterinary graduate from the University of Adelaide, took her own life after relentless abuse from a client. AVSMH’s campaign, which began in the second semester of this year, wants to raise awareness around the pressure veterinarians face.

Dr Sophie Putland tragically took her own life in September 2021.

Students’ demands to improve the situation at Roseworthy include a full-time psychologist at the campus and an updated Verification and Impact Statement (VIS) form to address its “ableist language”.

A VIS form is completed by a health practitioner and gives the university’s Disability Support team information about the “impact” of a student’s “health condition or disability” on their studies.

Claire says the university has made efforts to improve conditions, with course coordinators and the campus Dean recently meeting with the group.

“Out of this meeting we are going to make it easier for students to understand VIS forms without the fear of prejudice, and the Dean was looking to see if we could source a local psychologist to run bulk billing sessions for students at Roseworthy,” she says.

Without bulk-billing, a 1-hour appointment with a psychologist can cost around $260 depending on the clinic.

A survey is currently available to get student feedback on the VIS form, yet Claire is also encouraging people to share their own stories to help remove the stigma surrounding mental health. Having been diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, she knows the difficulties of being at university with a mental health condition.

“I struggled for a long time with deciding to tell the university that I was struggling, as I thought I would be made to drop out due to the ableist nature of the Veterinary VIS form, and put off seeking help until I was in a very critical place.”

Claire was fortunately able to receive the help she needed through the Statewide Eating Disorder Service (SEDS), but still misses some classes and study time when she travels to her appointments.

She says she was able to persevere thanks to the lecturers who were willing to make adjustments for her. Staff are collaborating with AVSMH to form the Roseworthy Alumni and Students Mental Health Fund (RASMHF). This fund accepts donations which support mental health talks and seminars from those in the industry, and sponsor students who wish to undertake a mental health first aid course.

But Claire firmly believes structural change is needed to address what is fundamentally a structural problem.

“Vet students are highly driven, perfectionistic and often quite self critical.

“This, combined with a job which is underfunded, with long hours and high levels of empathy required is the perfect storm for the development of mental illness, in the degree when students are overworking, or in the workplace when they inevitably burn out.

“Having access to a psychologist during study would allow students to develop coping skills for if mental illness should arise, or worsen during study or in practice.”

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