10/25/2013 03:56 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Mental health disorders spike in post-high school transitions

Jason Novick has seen the darkness that mental health disorders can create.

The 27-year-old Toronto man has also seen how advocacy — by himself and by others — has been vital in helping him cope with bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, mania and depression, particular during the stressful transition from his teenage years to leaving home for post-secondary school.

"Mental health awareness … is still an issue that’s largely misunderstood," he said in a recent interview.

"There’s a lot of [post-secondary] administrative workers and professors and program co-ordinators and what have you who won’t know the first thing about such issues, so your best ally is probably going to be yourself a lot of the time."

Another ally can also be a caring friend or family member who steps up to help others understand the larger situation. Novick remembers going with his mother to "set the record straight" with a college professor.

They wanted to explain to the instructor that it was his mental health that was his problem, not any lack of interest in the course.

"It was my mental health that was causing me to be so withdrawn, that was causing me to be so unmotivated. I was passionate about the subject, but I was not passionate about life and living."

Novick, who says he contemplated suicide at one point and has been in closed hospital wards three times because of his disorders, is much more passionate about life and living now, particularly after having completed an inpatient program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Tough transition

But he knows from personal experience how difficult coping with a mental health disorder can be, particularly for young people as they make the transition from life at home to being on their own and facing the pressures of school or work.

"The incidence in terms of new cases per year … certainly rises between roughly ages 16 to 24," says Dr. David Wolfe, a psychologist, senior scientist and director of CAMH’s Centre for Prevention Science in London, Ont.

Bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety and depression often become much more apparent during that period.

"Prior to that, there may have been signs of it because a lot of these do originate in childhood," says Wolfe. "But they emerge once the person is in a more stressful situation such as the military, university, college or job, and they don’t have the ability to cope as well."

Figures from Statistics Canada show that in 2009, 87,859 young people aged 12 to 19 were diagnosed with a mood disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, mania or dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder). In 2012, that number had risen to 111,930.

Other 2012 figures from Statistics Canada show that 315,928 Canadians aged 15 to 24 had a major depressive episode within the previous 12 months. For bipolar disorder, that number stood at 109,967. 

Not everyone with a mental health disorder will be diagnosed, or will need to be diagnosed — some people may find the support they need on their own, Wolfe said.

But overall, Wolfe suggests, the key is early diagnosis of these disorders, which resutls from recognizing a pattern of behaviour and the difference between a normal response to a stressful situation and an abnormal one.

"Typically," said Wolfe, "it’s when it impedes on everyday function" — such as someone not being able to get out of bed or go to work or school — that help is needed.

Learning to manage

"If they get help, then of course they can learn to manage, typically. Many of the disorders are treatable. They’re not curable, but they’re treatable and allow the person to get back to work or school."

Novick was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 16. He was later diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. He also experienced mania and depression. He saw a social worker. A psychiatrist, too. There were many medications — some with difficult side effects.

He was hospitalized for the first time at 18. The second hospitalization came just days before he was set to start studying journalism at Humber College.

"The anxiety just built up so much that even before my college career began, mental health took its toll. I didn’t even have to go to a class," Novick said.

Society, he suggests, puts "“so much importance on degrees and diplomas, and I think the pressure of that really got to me. "

There’s also the whole new social world that post-secondary life offers up, the need to meet new people and make new friends.

"I was not in a place where that was very easy," says Novick.

"I was still severely depressed. I was still self-harming and I was still prone to bouts of mania and all of that just created a perfect storm of mental health problems that imploded a few days before I was supposed to start, and I wound up back in Sunnybrook [hospital] for the second time.”

More time in hospital

Novick did eventually enrol at Humber, and has good things to say about many staff members he encountered who offered him help and support.

But ultimately, he says, he found that his major was "no longer within my capability," particularly because he recognized that his difficulties with memory and recall would not serve him well as a journalist.

Later, there was a second, ill-fated, post-secondary experience and another hospitalization. Still later, in the spring of 2012, with help and support from his mother, he checked himself into the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. He was recommended for CAMH’s Alternate Inpatient Milieu program, a 28-day service for individuals with mood and anxiety disorders.

"That is the program that changed me," Novick said.

"It was magnificent. It emphasizes cognitive behavioural therapy very heavily, which I took to very quickly, and the outpatient programs that followed were also in that vein. I loved them."

Since then, Novick has been in therapy, and completed a CAMH outpatient program. He’s also volunteering in the mental health field, "working with people who have been in my situation."

For those who find themselves in a similar situation, he suggests it is vital to tell as many people as they can.

"I think it’s important to keep family and close friends in the loop about your mental health, if you are comfortable with that, because if you do then I find you feel less isolated and you have more support around you."

More help now

He also suggests that students with a mental health problem should make sure they get assessed as a student with a disability at their post-secondary institutions as soon as possible. That assessment is something that can clear the way for extensions on tests and assignments, or other assistance.

Wolfe also notes how help is available on campuses, much more so than in the past.

"There’s a lot more entry points into the mental health system today than there were even a decade ago," he says.

"College campuses, universities, all have counselling centres and my understanding is they’re very busy these days because there is more news that they’re available."

Some people suggest there is more of an epidemic of cases, says Wolfe, while others suggest the situation is more reflective of increased awareness and people being more knowledgable about getting help.

"It’s hard to say what it is, but there is help there and it doesn’t have to be a tragedy or a crisis in order to get it….

"That’s good. You have to have a system that people can enter into without a crisis."