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Australia: call to change National Code after student death

Australia’s National Code should be amended to better inform mental health intervention strategies, according to a report from Victorian coroner Audrey Jamieson, which found low rates of international students seeking help.

The Victorian Coroner has called for a review of the National Code to increase awareness of mental health issues. Photo: PexelsThe Victorian Coroner has called for a review of the National Code to increase awareness of mental health issues. Photo: Pexels

Only 22% of international students used a mental health service within six weeks of their death compared to 57% of domestic students

“Family and friends had expressed concern about the deceased’s deteriorating mental state”

The recommendation, which would require education providers to share critical incident reports, follows an investigation into the 2016 death of a Chinese student in Melbourne.

The investigation concluded the student had experienced deteriorating mental health due to insomnia and problems with their English proficiency, but had not sought formal help, prompting a wider analysis by the Coroners Prevention Unit. In total, 27 similar instances were identified in Victoria between 2009-2015.

According to the analysis, international students were substantially less likely to seek help, with only 22% using a mental health service within six weeks of their death, compared to 57% of domestic students. International students were also twice as likely to have a suspected, but undiagnosed, mental illness.

“In a substantial number of international student suicides, family and friends had expressed concern about the deceased’s deteriorating mental state,” the coroner said.

“Therefore, the CPU expressed a strong concern that the lower proportion of diagnosed mental illness among international students… may reflect increased barriers to international students accessing mental health treatment.”

In her observations on the findings, Jamieson called Standard 6 of the National Code, which requires providers to keep written records of critical incidents as well as remedial action taken, a “major missed opportunity from a prevention perspective”.

“The coroner’s recommendation about provider critical incident reporting should be supported”

“Standard 6 does not appear to include any requirement beyond the education provider maintaining [a] written record,” she said.

Among her recommendations, Jamieson said critical incident reports should be collated to better inform intervention strategies.

“A central public health principle is that health problems must be defined and understood before interventions are developed.”

Additionally, she recommended reports be forwarded to each state’s coroner to improve the identification of international students after the CPU acknowledged that their frequency of mental ill-health was likely higher.

The coronial investigation’s recommendations were welcomed by Australian international education stakeholders, with student advocacy group ISANA saying early identification, intervention and support were crucial to ensure student wellbeing.

“We believe understanding the challenges faced by international students, in identifying that they need help and then accessing support, is fundamental to developing appropriate strategies,” ISANA national president Bronwyn Gilson said.

“We also believe that more needs to be done in supporting the staff that support the students.”

Mental health had become an area of focus for many organisations, and ISANA had already been working to undertake research to understand the circumstances of student welfare better, Gilson added.

“We need to understand the different cultures of our international students, and provide the professional development and resources for staff so that they can develop and provide culturally appropriate support and assistance to students,” she said.

IEAA chief executive Phil Honeywood said his organisation would support any review of the National Code.

“The National Code has only recently been updated, but already the sector has had a number of representations made about certain changes that will soon be required,” he said, pointing to concerns around migrant workers and workplace exploitation.

“Health problems must be defined and understood before interventions are developed”

Speaking with The PIE News, he added that more data was needed to understanding the number of incidents among international students.

“The more data we can gain access to, the more likely that we can put appropriate regulatory and other actions in place,” he said.

“To that extent, the coroner’s recommendation about provider critical incident reporting should be supported.”

Mental health and wellbeing have become a point of focus for many organisations and stakeholders recently, with English Australian launching its mental health guide in 2018, and IEAA focusing its annual mid-year network forum on the topic this year.

If you need support, help is available.

Australia
Lifeline: 131 114
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

UK
Samaritans: 116 123

US
National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-8255

 

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