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Mental health in university students - the issue of burnout

This page created 10 February 2013

By Jack, ADAVIC Volunteer

The mental health of Australia’s university students has been a matter of discussion and debate for an extended period of time. The pressure of study, combined with the stressors of everyday university life, has led to an increased awareness of the mental health of tertiary students throughout the nation.

According to the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, many challenges are posed by both the growing number of students with serious psychological disorders, and the increase in the number of students seeking counselling. This is emphasised by the finding that, ‘81% of college and university counselling center directors report seeing more students with serious psychological problems than were seen five years ago, and 63% report a growing demand for services without an appropriate increase in resources’.What’s more, according to some reports, ‘suicide is the second leading cause of death (after accidents) among college students’, emphasising the severity of the situation.

So what of the marked increase?

Issues of identity, relationships and sexuality mark a period of significant transition for the majority of university students. It therefore, contributes to the stress and anxiety of students to achieve both academically while being socially popular, and at times, in conformity to parents’ wishes in regards to career choice.

Further factors that reportedly contribute to the ‘epidemic’ of student health issues concern the racial and cultural problems often encountered on predominately white campuses by minority and international student groups. While not entirely new, ‘these stressors are being experienced by students in greater measure as our culture of high expectations continues to raise the bar for success and achievement’, and as a result, the inevitable fallout is the classic scenario of “early burnout”.

What is burnout? What are the symptoms?

According to some definitions, burnout is seen as exhaustion born of excessive demands, which may be self-imposed or externally imposed by families, jobs, friends, value systems or society which depletes one's energy, coping mechanism and internal resources. Symptoms include:

  • Physical symptoms: some of the more common physical symptoms of burnout are physical fatigue that is not fixed by a good night’s sleep; muscle tension, weight loss or gain, anxiety attacks, flare up of pre-existing medical conditions like hypertension or new health issues such as ulcers, migraines and gastrointestinal upset.
  • Behavioural symptoms: include loss of creativity, dread of going to work, increased alcohol and drug use, escapist behavior and loss of emotional control.
  • Attitudinal symptoms: feelings of inadequacy, negativity, feelings of meaninglessness, a sense of entrapment at work or in relationships and a desire to leave or change positions.
  • Interpersonal symptoms: increased marital and family conflicts, trust issues, withdrawal from family, loneliness and decreased interest in intimacy or sexual activity

How then to reverse the trend?

The most common forms of mental health problems experienced by students today include depression, sleep disorders, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, sexual addiction and suicide. These issues must be tackled in a manner that eliminates the potential for “early burnout”.

  • Get support - when you’re burned out, the natural tendency is to protect what little energy you have left by isolating yourself. Your friends and family, however, are more important than ever during difficult times. Turn to your loved ones for support. Simply sharing your feelings with another person can relieve some of the burden.
  • Re-evaluate your goals and priorities - burnout is an undeniable sign that something important in your life is not working. Take time to think about your hopes, goals, and dreams. Are you neglecting something that is truly important to you? Burnout can be an opportunity to rediscover what really makes you happy and to change course accordingly.  

Individual health issues however, such as the previously mentioned depressive disorders, substance abuse disorders and anxiety disorders (amongst others), require referral and treatment of university students. Psychological assistance, whether it be on campus or outsourced, is a vital component to the restoration of health, particularly amongst the student population.

So then, what to do?

Nowadays, a range of options are available to university students.  Student counsellors and psychologists are trained to assist students and will help student’s better cope with stressors. In particular, student counsellors are able to assess and design a study plan for students to release a substantial amount of pressure, while experienced student counsellors are able to distinguish issues relating to study from those more suited to a clinical setting (e.g. a depressive illness).

I urge you to utilise your university counsellor, or similar services, should you experience the symptoms of burnout or mental illness. And of course, rest away.

In addition there are a range of techniques and activities that can be implemented to prevent burnout. Here are three simple tips.
  1. Slow down - when you’ve reached the end stage of burnout, adjusting your attitude or looking after your health isn’t going to solve the problem. You need to force yourself to slow down or take a break.
  2. Cut back whatever commitments and activities you can.
  3. Give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal.


National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, 2003. Kadison, DeGeronimo. College of the Overwhelmed:
The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What To Do About It. pp. 79.
National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, 2003. Kadison, DeGeronimo. College of the Overwhelmed:
The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What To Do About It. pp. 80.

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