Student support services are a unique safety net

A whole of university approach to student wellbeing was created at La Trobe University in response to the pandemic and remains up and successfully running three years on.

The innovative approach, called Student Wellbeing Connect (SWBC), removes the need for referrals by therapeutic counsellors and allows friends, teachers and even the student themselves to self-refer to services or to flag a student in need of help.

University students were heavily impacted in the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, with uncertainty about their courses, accommodation, ability to work and mental health issues. In the face of the pandemic, La Trobe University quickly ramped up a program it has piloted the previous year.

A new paper published in the Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association outlines why similar programs should be adopted in universities nationally.

During the initial stages of the pandemic, students presented with multiple psychosocial stressors due to challenges such as accommodation issues or financial difficulties.

The authors of the report noted that these students, including international students, required wellbeing support in the form of supportive case management including assessment, coordination of services, referrals, and identification of risk more broadly.

The study found that the demand for support grew exponentially as students who were already experiencing complex needs prior to the pandemic also faced increased environmental stressors.

In many cases of the stories heard, this required a crisis response from the university and affected students often benefited from individualised case management. With requests for assistance increasing the piloted case management service was provided with additional resources becoming the SWBC that exists today.

Georgina Hanna, Senior Manager Mental Health and Wellbeing, the Student Wellbeing Connect (SWBC) service said there was a need to ramp up the program in response to the pandemic.

“It was so successful and well received that it has become a core component of La Trobe University’s Student Health, Wellbeing and Inclusion services responding to the complex and compounding factors that can impact the wellbeing and success of university students,” Georgina Hanna said.

It is a bedrock standard, set by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), that universities must facilitate timely and accurate access to student support services and promote a safe environment on campus and online.

In 2019, the La Trobe Health, Wellbeing and Inclusion division initiated a pilot Case Management service, called SWBC, which targeted at La Trobe University students requiring support that was not met by a therapeutic counselling service model or a disability support service that already exist at La Trobe.

Importantly SWBC receives self-referrals from students themselves as well as referrals from academics or administrative staff, or other student support services across the university. SWBC also provides secondary consultations to university staff seeking guidance on how to support a student, or whether to refer the student to SWBC.

SWBC operates by working with the student then triaging and managing risks associated with the student’s circumstances and then providing referrals to internal and external services, including to people with expertise in family violence, child protection, homeless services, youth services, public health, carer supports, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and mental health.

Psychosocial stressors are impactful as issues like food insecurity, according to the program. These include financial issues, family stressors, interpersonal difficulties, caring responsibilities, family/domestic violence, accommodation/housing issues, mental health issues, and physical illness.

The cumulative impact of psychosocial stressors may present in students as elevated anxiety; inability to complete assignments, assessments, or examinations; and difficulty absorbing the course content,” the paper says.

The program also recognises the impact that student’s psychosocial stressors can have an “overflow” effect on academic staff, impeding their wellbeing.

“The SWBC program allows students to better manage their stressors and for academics to have somewhere to seek advice as to how they can assist their students in need, taking pressure off both these groups,” Georgina Hanna said.

“SWBC acts as a safety net within the university setting if/when psychosocial difficulties are impacting the student’s experience, academic performance, and wellbeing.”

If students want to access the service they should self refer via this page and press the “Connect with Us” button

Study available from JANZSSA - A Wellbeing Specialist Case Management Service Providing Support to Students in a University Setting,

Study authors: Talia Vescio, Rachel Blance-Palmer and Courtney Walshe, La Trobe University

Media: Courtney Carthy-O'Neill, +61 487 448 734