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Counselling and Psychological Services

Referral request

Hi, I have come to counselling sessions offered at unimelb in the past, while they were good, I think I would prefer to start to see a psychologist more long term. At the time, my counsellor suggested I go on a mental health plan but it was not something I followed up about. Is it too late to ask for help with this?

Hello, no it’s not too late at all! It’s great if you feel like you’re ready to access some ongoing counselling sessions. This is something you can do at any time.

In order to get a mental health treatment plan (MHTP), you will first need to see a GP. If you don’t have one already, the University of Melbourne Health Service is available. When you book an appointment, let them know that you want to discuss a referral to a psychologist, as they may prefer you to book a longer appointment to give enough time to gather information. At the appointment, they will ask you some questions about yourself and what has been going on for you so they can complete the MHTP.

The next step is finding a psychologist and booking an appointment. There are multiple ways to find a psychologist. Your GP may recommend one to you and refer you directly. Or you may get a recommendation from someone you trust. The Australian Psychological Society also has a Find a Psychologist Service which can help. If you’d like some more support finding someone, feel free to book another appointment at Counselling and Psychological Services as our counsellors are happy to help.

Thanks for asking this question, it’s never too late to ask for help!

Studies “at risk” what do I do?

This is my first year at uni and I’ve been dealing with a lot of personal issues at home. Although I’ve attended class, I failed to submit several pieces of work during the year and am now facing a meeting with the CAPC. I’m feeling really anxious and overwhelmed, and quite frankly don’t know where to start and what to do

Thanks for your question. The first year of university study can be challenging– adapting to a new style of learning that is more autonomous and self-directed than high school, familiarising yourself to new classes and people, to name a few challenges. Starting university when many classes are online can add to these challenges, and having personal issues at home adds a further degree of stress to the mix. It’s not uncommon for students in first year to fail some subjects as they adapt and adjust amidst the transition to university. The thought of meeting a Course Academic Progress Committee (CAPC) can be daunting and frightening.

Some information can help manage anxiety – finding out what to expect of the CUPC, and what are the range of recommendations it can make, would be helpful – see here. It’s important to remember that the committee aims to support you in order to help you succeed with your studies. The committee will want to know what you can do differently to make the next semester of study more successful, and ensure you know how to connect with support services such as Academic Skills Unit and Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS). You can seek advice about how best to prepare for CAPC from University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU).

You can find support and help with personal and study issues here at CAPS through free and confidential counselling. Even if the issues at home are things you cannot directly control, counselling can help you explore how you can best deal with the difficulties and take care of yourself. You might also benefit from talking to a supportive friend or family member.

When to seek help?

I have had problems with anxiety all through my degree and I managed to live through it, headaches and chest pains and all. But I am often miserable and in a lot of emotional pain. Because I can function normally I feel bad for seeking out professional counselling—even for writing this question. When should I seek help? Or is it better to pursue relaxation techniques at home?

Thanks for your question, it sounds like your anxiety has negatively impacted your emotional wellbeing a great deal, and that you have been battling with a number of unpleasant physical symptoms for some time now. I think your question highlights a very important issue for people considering whether or not they should seek professional help. It is important to remember that people seek professional help for a variety of mental health difficulties of varying severity, all of which are equally valid concerns.

There is no particular criteria you have to meet to access professional support, in fact, sometimes it’s better to seek help before things get too severe. Even if you are still functioning well and meeting the demands of your life, if anxiety is taking a toll on your emotional wellbeing then it is important to seek help. Working with a professional may help you gain another perspective on the anxiety you experience and why it may be occurring. Ultimately you may be able to learn not just how to cope with your anxieties, but how to move beyond them toward living a more enjoyable life.

I want to re-assure you that professional help is safe-guarded by high standards of privacy and confidentiality. There is nothing wrong with experimenting with relaxation techniques, but it can be helpful to do this in consultation with a health professional. You can choose to see a counsellor one-on-one at Counselling and Psychological Services. We also often run workshops on anxiety, check out our website for information and how to register.

Another option is to go through a GP at the University of Melbourne Health Service. A GP would also be able to assess your eligibility for a Mental Health Treatment Plan which allows Medicare rebates for allied mental health services (e.g., psychologists, social workers).

Anxiety affecting study

This lockdown has amplified my anxiety significantly and I’ve had regular panic attacks. I am seeing a psychologist and have also been identified with OCD tendencies that have gotten worse due to lockdown. I am finding it extremely difficult to focus or do anything, and studying is the last thing on my mind. However, with exams fast approaching I cannot ignore this and it is very much contributing to my stress. I was wondering what I could do to get through this period. Thank you.

Thanks for your most relevant question. Many people have been finding that the repeated lockdowns are increasing their stress and anxiety symptoms as well as preventing them from managing them the way they normally would. I am wondering what some of the strategies were in the past that you used to manage panic attacks and anxiety? Consider speaking to your psychologist about ways these techniques can be adjusted during lockdown. I am also wondering if there are particular aspects of lockdown that you are struggling with more than others, such as the isolation? If so, make sure you are connecting with people as much as possible within restriction policy, especially if you live alone. Try to stick to a routine, and make sure you are getting regularly outside, and letting as much natural light inside your home as possible. You might not know that the Baillieu Library at University of Melbourne is available for students who don’t have enough quiet space to study at home, and who may find it easier to concentrate when around other people in a different environment. You can book a space here.

The Counselling and Psychological Services of The University of Melbourne (CAPS) regularly run workshops/ webinars on topics such as managing anxiety, optimising focus and attention, and being effective during difficult times. For a short time, recordings of these webinars are still available and you can catch up on them here. Our website also has a number of resources for managing stress and anxiety related to Covid-19, as well as guided exercises to assist with relaxation and breathing. Check in with your psychologist about how these techniques may fit in with your current therapy, and for some extra help in implementing them. Finally, sometimes it can be helpful to change your study techniques when you are struggling to focus. Find some tips on studying effectively here.

Missing family and can’t concentrate

Hi, I am an international student and always been a family-oriented kind of person. I’m very close to them and I miss them so much. When I came here I thought I would be able to visit them on my breaks but with borders closed I haven’t been able to. I can’t concentrate in class, it’s so hard to focus! What should I do?

Thanks for your question – I know many students struggle with this same problem, and of course Covid-19 and all the adjustments this has forced has made this harder. It sounds like you’re dealing with a number of issues; homesickness, adjusting to a new country and university course, and of course all the stress that naturally comes with being a student.

In dealing with problems of concentration and focus, I would suggest you try mindfulness meditation. There is evidence that this practice can lead to a number of benefits including enhanced sustained attention. Our website has some guided exercises you might find useful. We also regularly run workshops on ‘Optimising Focus and Attention’ that teach strategies you may find useful.

While nothing can replace your family while you’re here, it’s important to consider other ways you can feel connected to people, even if it’s temporary. Isolation is an added stressor that can make other demands in your life feel harder, and we all need support. Make sure you are staying in regular contact with your family where possible, and consider ways to increase your in person contact while you’re here (and when it’s allowed!) such as joining some clubs or activities at the university or organising something social with people you’ve already met.

Finally, managing stress is an important part of being a successful and happy student, and there are a number of ways to make this easier. You can find some useful resources here. Self care is always important and involves looking after your physical health, taking time out for yourself to relax or have fun, and connecting with other people around you. Consider what activities you know help you when you are feeling stressed, and think about what supports you have here.

If you’d like to talk this over with someone one-on-one, counselling at Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is free of charge, completely confidential and counsellors are experienced in helping students manage similar situations to what you describe.

Crippling exam anxiety

What are some “emergency” strategies for coping with sudden and crippling anxiety or panic during an important exam or presentation when there is no time to use breathing techniques?

Exam situations and oral presentations are very common sources of anxiety for students. During any situation where you are experiencing a sudden burst of anxiety, your body goes into overdrive – you may notice yourself breathing more quickly and becoming short of breath, you may begin to sweat more, feel like you are going ‘blank’ and have difficulty remembering what you were planning to say. The following tips might be useful in learning ways to cope with anxiety.

1. Although you may not have time to do a full 20 minute breathing technique (though these are helpful to do prior to your exam), there are some brief strategies which you can learn to use and practice in your exam or presentation. For example, when you begin to feel panic rising, remember to breathe! Part of the problem with panic is that our breathing gets very short and shallow, and our brain then interprets this as ‘something wrong’, which of course makes us panic even more! Taking a couple of moments to focus on your breath can help the body to calm down at times of stress, and also can help to focus our attention on the task at hand. Click here for some tips on breathing through your anxiety. You can also find some guided breathing and relaxation exercises here. It may be helpful to start practicing this on a regular basis, rather than only when you are feeling anxious.

2. Before the exam, it is important to feel adequately prepared by knowing your subject. Academic Skills Unit has some helpful information about preparing for exams, effective studying, and presenting. Be mindful of getting enough sleep and nutritious food – looking after your physical and mental wellbeing will give your brain its best chance.

3. Try not to get anxious about being anxious! You don’t have to be perfectly calm to perform well, and if you are expecting yourself to stay calm then you may end up worrying more and then getting in a bigger panic. Accepting that you will feel nervous, and even trying to study or practice your presentation while you are feeling anxious may help you to tolerate your symptoms of anxiety better so they don’t get in the way.

4. Be aware of any of your negative self-talk. For example; thoughts such as, ‘I can’t do this’, or, ‘I’m going to fail’, can increase anxiety and panic. Try replacing negative thoughts with calming and encouraging thoughts, such as; ‘This is just anxiety, it can’t harm me’, ‘This too will pass’, ‘Relax – everything will be OK’, and ‘Everyone in my class is in the same boat’. By thinking more positively our confidence to engage in the task is boosted and we feel better about our abilities to complete the exam or presentation.

5. Many of these skills take time to practice and develop, so don’t forget about them once semester is over! Practice them regularly so you are more prepared the next time you are in an anxiety provoking situation. Counselling and Psychological Services regularly runs workshops which address a range of skills that can help manage anxiety, including mindfulness, changing negative thinking and managing difficult emotions.

Best of luck with your exams!

No group of friends, a problem?

I often see a group of friends who always do things together and I start to wonder why I don’t have such a group. It was easier during lockdown but since people starting going out again it feels even lonelier, and I feel insecure when people ask who I do usually hang out with. This is worsened by the fact that I’m not that kind of person who likes to initiate a meet-up, so I just hang out if somebody asks to. How could I cope with this situation and stop pretending that I’m okay doing things by myself?

Thanks for writing in with this question, as it addresses a problem that many students face when coming to a new city. It’s important to remember that everyone’s social life is different, and although you may see many people spending time in groups, not everyone has this experience and this doesn’t mean there’s something different about you. However the need for connection with others is very real, as is the need for the sense of belonging that can come from having a group of friends. It sounds like you’re experiencing some social anxiety which is getting in the way of you having these needs met. If this is the case you’re definitely not alone, and you don’t need to pretend that you don’t want friends, everyone does!

It’s great to be open when others initiate, but it’s important to let people know that you are interested in spending time with them. It’s very possible that some of the people you are meeting also feel insecure and may need some encouragement! Some friendships build slowly, and sometimes we meet great friends through other people we didn’t connect with as well. Some information on the skills needed to develop friendships can be found here and here.

Remember that it takes some time to build a good friendship group. There are some things that you can do to increase your opportunities. Friendships often develop around shared activities. Check out the University of Melbourne Student Union for clubs and activities. If you’d like to explore ways to manage the social anxiety that can come with these situations, feel free to make an appointment at Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), or check out our workshops, we regularly run workshops and webinars on building social connections and understanding social anxiety.

When Mental Health Impacts Studies

So I’ve been struggling with my mental health, as so many are particularly after last year. Now new issues have arisen regarding anxiety and stress and I can’t focus and I’ve lost drive. I’m concerned about how far behind I am at this point in the semester. At what point do I need to let someone at the university know that I’m struggling with my own anxiety and depression and so my ability to study. How do I set myself up for success while I catch up from what feels like my own shortcomings but is really a Mental Health issue??

This is a good question to ask, as you’re right, many people are struggling with mental health issues. And these issues can often impact on study, affecting concentration, motivation and energy levels. It can be frustrating and stressful to feel that your mental health is preventing you from doing your best work.

It’s important to be aware of what kind of support is available to you as a student. In addition to individual counselling, Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) also offers a range of workshops to help enhance your learning skills, as well as strengthen resilience and self-care. Academic support may also be available if your study is being affected by a health issue. Letting someone at the university know that you are struggling with your mental health may be helpful as you may be eligible for some extra support. If you are experiencing ongoing mental health issues, then consider reaching out to Student Equity and Disability Support (SEDS) to find out what kind of assistance may be possible. You can find more information here. If you have been seeing a mental health professional then you can request supporting documentation from them to assist in your request for support.

It’s definitely important to reach out in anyway you can, rather than struggling to cope on your own, so make sure you’re checking in with people regularly, both your personal supports as well as those at the University.

Lost with no direction

I graduated from undergrad last year and am starting a postgraduate program this year. However, I feel lost about where I am going, and think that I am unprepared for careers and further study. I feel as though I’m not good enough for anything, and will struggle no matter what I do. I have no definite or clear goal that I think I can achieve easily. It feels as if I am currently stuck in a rut, and keep using up time and energy that lead me back to where I was before. Some people I know seem to have it all planned out with study or jobs. In comparison, I don’t know where to start. What can I do to find my way?

Hi there,

Thanks for sending in your message. It sounds like you are having a difficult time at the moment. You say you feel like you are stuck in a rut and unsure about what the future holds. While it is normal to feel like this at times, it may be that you have been feeling like this for a while, and that is why you are reaching out.

Working out what path to take in life is not always easy. It can be difficult to work out what direction to head in. Some people know the path they want to take early in life, but for many it can take longer, so don’t feel like you are the only one feeling like this as it is a very common feeling. It sounds like sitting down to chat to supportive family or friends, or with the careers team at Uni Melb may help with this.

You say you have no definite or clear goal that you think you can achieve. When setting goals, it is good to set small, achievable goals that are easy to complete in your day to day life. Using the SMART goals method may help, but most importantly make them achievable. It may be as simple as going for a 15 minute walk every day. When you hit these smaller goals, it can give a sense of accomplishment, and set you up to feel confident in achieving bigger goals.

Alternatively, focusing on what is important to you through values can be helpful. Values are your hearts deepest desires for how you would like to act. They are not about what you want to get or achieve; they are about how you want to behave or act on an ongoing basis; how you want to treat yourself, others and the world around you. It can be helpful when goal setting to ask yourself “does this goal align with my values?”, if the answer is no, this may be why you are struggling with what you are doing, and things may need to be reassessed.

If you would like further support an individual appointment at CAPS may be a good place to start. Please do book in if you feel this would be helpful.


Fearful of meeting new people

I am insanely scared of meeting new people. I have no fear of doing presentations or greeting customers in my hospitality job. However, I feel so afraid of new people that I avoid situations like meeting up with friend’s friends, going to party’s, or entering a café. I am not outgoing, and I feel worried that others hate me. I thought this was due to racism but nowadays I’m in my home country, and I am still experiencing the same fears. I need to make new friends and meet people but I just feel too afraid to do this. I would really like to change my situation, I feel too lonely. Do you have any advice to overcome fear of meeting new people?

Hello there and thank you for your question! There is a lot to go over so I have broken our response into different categories:

  • It is perfectly normal to be nervous around new situations and new people, although sometimes we get more anxious than we can tolerate and choose to avoid a situation. As a basic starter managing your anxiety will help this process, so in preparation for new situation, work on breathing exercises, something simple like breathing out longer than you are breathing in, or long deep breaths.
  • We can worry about what other people think, but it is important to know that other people are often having the exact same thoughts going through their own heads, especially new people. Humans spend between 90-99% of their thinking time devoted to themselves, and we hold a thought in out minds for a maximum of 3-4 seconds. So if you are worried about other people, there is a 1-10% chance they have had a negative thought about you and this thought is gone a few seconds later. In general, everyone is just as scared of you as you are of them!
  • It is not so strange that you can greet customers without fear, in employment, there are rules and expectations that can be followed, whereas in new social situations it is less predictable as to what can happen.
  • Work relationships can also be friendships, that would depend on whether you have any shared likes, values or dislikes with a co-worker. There are also levels of friendship, most research indicates we need between 2-8 friends that are close, but other than that we can have other people in our lives that we can discuss and bond over a smaller amount of things, i.e. a co-worker may like basketball and if like this you can discuss this topic, it is not necessary or expected to go any further than this. However, it is important not to rule out people you work with completely.
  • Unhelpful or irrational thoughts can also hinder us in approaching new people (“they hate me” to use your example). It is highly unlikely that someone who has never met you will have a thought that strong about you, but we inherently trust our thoughts. In these cases they need challenging. As a base rate, during or after a social engagement, ask yourself: “did anyone SAY any of the things I thought they were thinking?” – the answer will inevitably be no. It can be helpful to challenge these thoughts in a structured way via a thoughts diary.

Hopefully that advice can get you on the right track!


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