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This Year, Let's Ensure Students' Mental Health Isn't Their Top Worry

A 2016 survey found high rates of diagnosed mental illness and subjective distress.

09/01/2017 10:40 EDT | Updated 09/01/2017 10:47 EDT
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Around one million young people will shortly be commencing (or recommencing) post-secondary studies at universities and colleges across Canada. This is a time of great hope and excitement for many young people. But for others, post-secondary studies can prove to be a stressful experience, as evidenced by the recent results of the National College Health Assessment Survey (NCHA).

The National College Health Assessment Survey

The NCHA was administered to over 43,000 students at 41 Canadian campuses in 2016, finding high rates of mental disorder. Over 18 per cent of students reported being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, while 15 per cent had been diagnosed with depression. This is likely an underestimate of true prevalence given that the survey only measured formally diagnosed disorders.

The survey also found high rates of subjective distress. For example, 70 per cent of students indicated that they felt overwhelmed in the past month, and 61 per cent reported experiencing tremendous amounts of stress. One quarter reported feeling so depressed that they could not function at some point in the past 30 days and 42 per cent reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety in the past 30 days.

Campus mental health services

Most post-secondary institutions now have dedicated mental health services, consisting of psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors. These services are making a valiant effort to improve student mental health, often in the face of an exponential rise in demand.

But worryingly, numerous studies show that students often delay or avoid seeking treatment for mental health issues. Indeed, the NCHA indicates that almost 25 per cent of students would not see a mental health professional for a serious personal problem. This could be attributed to stigma associated with mental illness, as well as a lack of mental health literacy on campus. These issues are discussed in the short campus vox-pop video below.

What more can be done?

Individual students can make efforts to promote their own mental health in numerous ways. Five factors have been consistently linked to good mental health, namely: (i) frequent exercise; (ii) a healthy balanced diet; (iii) social relationships and activity; (iv) regular and restful sleep; and (v) spirituality, e.g. meditation, prayer or yoga. Students should consider these as an essential part of self-care, especially when feeling overly stressed.

But we all have a role to play in facilitating student mental health. Three groups of people may be especially important in promoting student mental health. These are what I call the 3Ps: peers, professors and parents.

The Three Ps

Firstly, peer pressure can lead some students to engage in harmful behaviours regarding drink, drugs and sex. However, peers can facilitate recovery from mental illness through emotional and instrumental support. Indeed, many universities now have official "peer support centres," where stressed students can go to find solace and support from other (specially trained) students. Such programs need to be intensified and expanded.

Secondly, professors indirectly affect student mental health through things such as course loads, exams and support offered to students in difficulty. While it is important to maintain excellent academic standards, professors should be encouraged to make accommodations when requested by students with mental illness. Likewise, professors can be better trained to direct struggling students to the appropriate remedial resources.

Thirdly, parents can be a massive support to students; financially, socially and emotionally. That said, many students report that parents put them under considerable stress, psychologically coercing them to take certain courses and scolding them should their grades be imperfect. Students can internalize this perfectionism, which has been linked to depression. Less parental pressure and more unconditional support could help student mental health.

The first week of the academic year should be a time of hope and excitement for all. Let's ensure this extends to students with mental health issues too.

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