RUOK: School leaders invite mental health conversations

Students and academics encouraged to look out for each other. Plus, seven things you can control during the pandemic.

Thinking about the future is in biomedical scientists’ DNA. After all, making a difference to human health takes time, a life’s work in fact.

However, for now, Professor Jennifer Wilkinson-Berka, Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences, is urging the cohort to think about the day, not the future.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is having a major impact. This is difficult. Now is a time to concentrate on each day as it comes and be kind to yourself,” she says.

“Tap into the University resources, but also more closely with your friendship groups, your supervisor, the head of your department and even with me – and be aware that the University completely understands what you are facing.”

Thursday 10 September is RUOK Day, an annual awareness day empowering people to connect with those around them and start a conversation with anyone who might be struggling with life.

Dr Charles Sevigny, a lecturer in the Department of Physiology, says starting that conversation is the most important step.

Dr Sevigny lost his sister to suicide nine years ago. “She had bipolar disorder, and ever since then I’ve put a lot of thought into what I could have done differently to change what happened.”

The Digital Learning Hub Director says, it’s important to remember that everyone gets sad and stressed. But, it becomes a mental health concern when that stress or sadness gets in the way of the life you aspire to have.


More than 50 per cent of young people are experiencing negative mental feelings as a result of the pandemic, according to Student Edge, a member-based organisation of Australian universities, TAFE and high schools.

When students aged 14 to 25 were asked how they felt about the pandemic, their response was negative and suggested high levels of stress.

“Student are at the top of our mind,” says Professor Wilkinson-Berka. “They have come to the University to do these exciting projects, chosen their supervisor, met their lab mates and mentors – and, now, it seems like the carpet has been ripped out from beneath them.

“This is where resilience is very important because as scientists need to have resilience throughout our careers. We all have ups and downs and I’ve had just as many as anybody.”

Staying socially connected is one of the most important things young people can do, according to ReachOut. Dr Sevigny adds, avoiding social pressures especially on social media and talking about any feeling around pressure to perform can help students.


Professor Wilkinson-Berka says in recent video calls with the School’s specialist teachers and laboratory heads she sees dedication, but also the work-family juggle and fatigue.

“Everyone is working extra hard to get online teaching up and you’re worried about your students mental health – and I’m concerned about yours,” she says.

It has been more than four months since Australia entered a lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19 and many people are realising the pandemic is far from over.

The Melbourne Institute’s weekly survey of the impact of COVID-19 in Australia – Taking the Pulse of the Nation – shows reports of high mental distress have doubled since the pandemic began.

The tracking of the economic and social wellbeing of Australians also reveals an increase in mental distress among fathers.

Pre-COVID-19, fathers were a less vulnerable group with only five to nine per cent of them reporting high levels of mental distress. Now, they are most distressed group with 33 per cent of fathers whose youngest child is aged five to 11 reporting high levels of mental distress, the research shows.

“I want you to take care of yourself, and unless you care for your family, you can’t do your work well and you just won’t be happy,” says Prof Wilkinson-Berka to mothers and fathers.


Beyond Blue Chair, the Hon Julia Gillard AC discusses the importance of remaining connected, kind and compassionate during the coronavirus outbreak.

“As humans, we’re hardwired to crave stability. If you’re feeling worried and unsettled that is perfectly understandable.”

She says, there are many things you can do to minimise distress and strengthen your emotional wellbeing.

The University’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) outline seven strategies to cope with stress, anxiety and distress during this challenging time:

  1. Learn how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19
  2. Acknowledge your feelings
  3. Maintain your day-to-day activities and a routine as much as possible
  4. Stay connected
  5. Remember that physical distancing does not need to mean social disconnection
  6. Contribute
  7. Keep things in perspective

Different strategies work for different people, says Dr Sevigny. “It’s so easy to fall into a rut during lockdown, but find what works for you and remember, getting help is brave and takes courage.”

By Harriet Edmund

Find out more about University’s counselling and resources. See Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service, and visit RUOK for information about how to start a conversation and what to do next.