Aims: With approximately 50% of young people aged 18–24 in tertiary education, these are potential settings for programmes to improve mental health literacy. A survey was carried out with students and staff of a tertiary education institution to investigate psychological distress, actions to deal with mental health problems and first-aid behaviours.
Methods: Telephone interviews were carried out with 774 students of an Australian metropolitan university (with 422 staff as a comparison group). They answered questions relating to psychological distress, actions to deal with mental health problems and first-aid behaviours.
Results: Students were more likely to be psychologically distressed than staff (21% vs. 13%) and 27% reported experiencing a problem similar to that described in a depression vignette. The most common actions taken were talking to a close friend, physical activity and talking to close family. Over 72% of students with a problem had sought professional help, most often from a general practitioner or counsellor. Only 10% reported seeking help from a student counsellor. Helpful first-aid behaviours were common and were seen in over 90% of students who had a family member or close friend with a similar problem.
Conclusions: There is a need for further investigation of levels and factors associated with psychological distress in higher education students along with an exploration of barriers to and enablers of use of student counselling services. High levels of help seeking from friends and first-aid behaviours provided point to the need for effective peer-to-peer education.