In this edition of workLIFE@ACU, we talk to Student Counsellor Shannon Thompson from our Ballarat campus. Shannon talks about the transitional challenges for students and how an innovative Peer Leadership Program helps them to engage with university life, through a mission-based focus on outreach and inclusion.
Psychologist Shannon Thompson has spent nearly a decade working at ACU’s Ballarat campus. Along with her 20+ years of clinical practice, Shannon brings a rich variety of professional experience to ACU. She has previously worked in teaching settings, as well as in a range of community health promotion and primary prevention services. She has also worked in child psychiatry, and in youth mental health services for ‘at risk’ adolescents grappling with substance use and being homeless.
“I think this has equipped me with valuable experience regarding the various issues faced by young people, and especially an awareness of the complex challenges that can often affect clients from lower socio-economic backgrounds,” Shannon said.
Her current role as an ACU Student Counsellor has been the longest role of her career, and she says it’s her love of working with our vibrant student population and the scope for developing new ways to serve their needs which has kept her passionate about her work.
Around 70% of students at ACU Ballarat are from regional and rural areas she says, and relocating away from their family and friends can make the initial transition to University life challenging. Many students juggle a range of responsibilities, alongside the need to support themselves financially.
“Most of our students work a minimum of 12 hours a week, and also need to dedicate at least 35 hours to study. In addition, our nursing, paramedic and education students complete clinical placements, which can mean taking substantial breaks from their paid employment, travelling significant distances and covering accommodation costs,” she said.
She says many students seek counselling in the first semester of their first year, as it is common it is to feel stressed when adjusting to university. She reminds students that they are able to seek counseling for any concern or life event that adversely affects their wellbeing, it does not need to be directly related to study.
“We offer a confidential, non-judgmental space for students to reflect on areas of concern, and assist them to develop strategies to manage their personal challenges. This in turn assists them to focus on their academic pursuits and achieve at their full potential.”
Being the sole Student Counsellor on her campus has not stopped Shannon from forging strong relationships with colleagues across the University, including those within the Office of Student Success, Equity Pathways and Campus Ministry. She says she really enjoys these collaborations and the inclusive community focus that underpins ACU’s approach to student wellbeing.
After commencing at ACU, Shannon could see a gap in connecting new students with support services on campus. This led her to develop an innovative Peer Leadership Network Program, which recruits second-year students who volunteer to mentor to first-year students and act as conduit to support services on campus.
“Research tells us that students who are having difficulties are more likely to approach their peers than a professional. So we thought it would beneficial from Day One of Orientation Week to connect new students with senior students who have successfully navigated the hurdles of first year.”
Volunteer Peer Leaders attend a training day to develop skills in engaging with new students, recognising those who may be having difficulties, and to learn about communication styles and basic counselling skills.
“In line with the ACU Mission, we discuss the importance of reaching out to others who may be feeling marginalised and would benefit from some support. We discuss issues such as the importance of respecting people’s value systems and weave it into the ACU Graduate Attributes, as the volunteers are developing their leadership skills. During Orientation Week, the Peer Leaders take new students to meet the staff in the Office of Student Success and explain what support services are available. The Peer Leaders also host a welcome dinner and informal coffee catchups with the new students in first semester to foster connection and establish social networks.”
Shannon says the program has helped to reduce attrition rates and is very popular with the student volunteers, some of whom stay involved in the program into their third or fourth year at ACU. Similar programs have now been rolled out on other ACU campuses.
“We have a very low attrition rate at Ballarat - it’s actually the lowest of all ACU campuses and we pride ourselves on that. For me, it’s really rewarding to go to graduation ceremonies and see students I have had contact with, being happy, successful and moving forward with their lives. Particularly for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, having a degree is a stepping stone to breaking that cycle.”
Primary prevention activities are also a key pillar of supporting wellbeing for university students. Shannon says the peak age of onset for a serious mental illness is between 16-25 years old, and around 25% of students meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.
“We know that if someone is grappling with mental health issues, the sooner it is recognised and treated, the less overall impact it will have on their life and ongoing wellbeing,” she said.
With the aim of increasing early detection and intervention, Shannon piloted the Mental Health First Aid training program on Ballarat campus in 2012. To date, Shannon has conducted 14 training workshops with approximately 40 Academic and Professional staff, and with groups of students. The program has now also been rolled out nationally on other ACU campuses.
“Mental Health First Aid involves a 12-hour workshop which aims to equip staff and students with factual information about depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance misuse and to reduce associated stigma. It helps participants develop their confidence to approach individuals who may be having mental health difficulties, and to raise awareness of key support services available in the community.”
“In Ballarat we primarily have education and health sciences students, these are our future nurses, paramedics and teachers. The skills they learn from the workshops are imperative in their future employment, to assist their peers and the populations they will be engaging with.”
How you can help support wellbeing
Shannon says the most important thing anyone can do to support distressed students is to be available to them, and to listen to their concerns – then support them to access appropriate professional support services, such as those listed in the ACU Staff Referral Guide to Student Services. To find out more about counselling services, visit the Office of Student Success website, which includes an online counselling booking service for students. Staff who would like advice on responding to an individual student who may be having mental health difficulties can also contact their campus Counsellors to seek a secondary consultation regarding the best way to offer support.