Support for western Sydney HSC students as COVID prompts mental health surge

An emergency support program and a referral-based program for teenagers with existing mental health conditions have been set up by Western Sydney Local Health District’s Child and Youth Mental Health Service to support students during their HSC year.

The ENABLE (Engaging Assertively and Building Links to Empower) and Stepping Stones programs, which are designed for young people with severe mental health issues, have been tailored and reformed to create the “HSC and Beyond” group. 

Emergency department navigation team peer support worker Shameel said that mental health support has been particularly important in a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty.

“We wanted to create a crisis centred program that allowed support to be given to students presenting to our hospitals in distress,” Shameel said.

“COVID-19 has uprooted a lot of traditional study techniques that students would undergo in preparation for the HSC. Online learning, home-schooling and that loss of connection to peers can impact mental health.” 

Primarily located in the emergency department at Westmead and Blacktown hospitals, Shameel and colleague Carly Boaler have set up an emergency, peer-based program that enables students to access ongoing mental health support in the weeks following an ED presentation. 

“As the HSC draws near, we have seen a large increase in mental health-related presentations to our emergency departments,” Shameel said.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about whether or not the exams would go ahead due to COVID-19 – causing a lot of stress and anxiety for many young students.”

The “HSC and Beyond” group was previously a singular module of the Stepping Stones program but is now offered to students as a standalone program given the high demand for mental health support.

Emergency department navigation team peer support worker Shameel said that mental health support has been particularly important in a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty.

Once presenting to the emergency department, students are able to access one-on-one peer support and weekly group support sessions for the 28 days following.

The sessions offer helpful tips on managing stress and anxiety levels throughout the HSC, tips for productivity, healthy habits, and the options available for students beyond the exam period.

Shameel said this service has had great engagement so far with many students getting involved.

“Our work is crisis based – we are trying to help the students presenting to ED mitigate their problems.

“The HSC is important, and we encourage every student to give it their best effort, but the results do not dictate your career path. Mental health is just as important as these exams. There are always options on how to get to where you want to be.”

Also working closely with HSC Students, the Prevention Early Intervention and Recovery Service (PEIRS) has ensured teens with existing moderate-to-severe mental health conditions have been supported during their final schooling year. 

WSLHD Prevention Early Intervention and Recovery Service (PEIRS) team.

Supervising clinical psychologist Anusha Govender, assisted by Master of Clinical Psychology students Daniel Macdonald and Lindsey Procter, have developed and facilitated a HSC online group program.

This was in response to a surge in referrals and the need to support pre-existing mental health patients through this highly stressful time. 

“PEIRS take direct referrals from WSLHD mental health services and indirect referrals from GPs, private psychiatrists and clinicians, schools, parents and self-referrals through the Mental Health Line,” Anusha said.

The referral-based HSC program ran weekly group sessions across a three week period, focusing on coping with stresses related to the HSC, sleep, diet and exercise tips and time management skills.

“Having these clients get brought into a group eliminates the feeling of isolation and like they are not alone.”

Daniel said it is important for students to be self-compassionate and remember that it is okay to take time away from studying. 

“A little bit of anxiety is good, it is healthy. The goal is never to have no anxiety because we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning without that motivation,” the Master of Clinical Psychology student said.

“Be open about how you are coping and if you are not coping. It takes courage to tell someone. Keep your communication open, and we are all here to help.”

If you or someone you know needs help, there are support services available.

  • To connect with specialist mental health services, call the NSW Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511. 
  • For crisis support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
  • For mental health advice, call Beyond Blue on 1800 512 348.
  • A list of support services in Western Sydney can be found here.

In a life threatening emergency, please call triple zero (000).