It was one of the hardest times in Brent Carpenter's life. His girlfriend of three and a half years had broken up with him. He had a major project due the next morning, and was working into the night.
He suddenly realized he couldn't keep going.
"I was definitely home alone, it was like 4 in the morning. The project was due at 8:30 in the morning," Carpenter remembers. "I was feverishly trying to get it done, and that was the point where I stopped, I just stopped doing it. And then I said I can't finish this, I didn't even go to that class."
Instead he emailed his professor.
"I told him I was really stressed, I was really upset over my relationship problems, and I said, I'm really embarrassed to come to class today without the project done and that's why I didn't come in…"
Mental stress among students at universities and colleges across North America is an increasing trend. At Toronto's OCAD University, where Carpenter attends, more than half the students surveyed say they've felt so depressed at some point in the past year, they found it difficult to function.
A recent national survey on mental health at Canadian universities showed OCAD has significantly higher stress levels among its students compared with other Canadian universities.
Many of OCAD's teaching staff worry about their students, even before they saw the results of a survey quantifying the stress they're seeing in their classrooms. Brent still remembers his own professor's response.
"I just thought he wouldn't care. I just thought he would be like, '10 per cent late, or 20 per cent late,' whatever the policy was," he says. "But then, he actually suggested things. I thought that was really nice, he suggested going to see someone, stuff like that. I wasn't expecting a friendly reply, that's for sure."
Keesic Douglas teaches photography, film and lighting at OCAD. He says the rigours of the art school are intense.
"We're a university that has university-level expectations but we're also asking students to, every week, come up with brilliant and creative ideas," he says. "It's almost like they have to create something unique every day."
University is a major life change — stressful enough on its own. On top of that, says Keesic, many of his students are routinely exhausted. "All-nighters and all-weekenders. Students are showing up at 17 years old, moved from a very small towns, trying to figure out university, how to make art and how to survive in downtown Toronto."
At OCAD, the pressure is intensified by a tradition of often-punishing critiques of student art work. Jennifer Robinson, clinical director of OCAD's health and wellness centre, says that’s a tremendous factor.
"We have so many students that have almost a panic attack because they find it really stressful," she says. "Part of it is when students are doing their art, it's personal and vulnerable."
When Robinson first came to OCAD as a counsellor, she was shocked at how stressed the students were who walked through her doors.
"I was surprised by the severity of mental health issues and the number of students expressing thoughts of suicide, it's alarming — 70 per cent of them were expressing thoughts of suicide," she says. "And we're inundated, I mean the staff between appointments, we see people walking in, line-ups at the door, so we're very inundated. We can't keep up with the demand."
The National Collegiate Health Assessment research has measured that stress. It surveys university students across North America. It found that 66 per cent of OCAD students said they'd felt hopeless at some point in the past 12 months. Fifteen per cent said they'd seriously considered suicide.
Robinson begun a series of training sessions with professors to help them respond to students at risk.
A professor who understands the stress can make a huge difference.
For Brent Carpenter, the response from his instructor was a turning point. Now in his third year, he checks in regularly with a counsellor at the health and wellness centre.
“We discussed small strategies to do during the week, early on, just breathing techniques, de-stressing early on, putting down work, sitting, taking a minute to do deep breathing, relaxing, breaking projects down into small steps,” he says. “Having someone to talk to is really helpful.”
Simple strategies that are helping one student keep his head above the complex and pervasive pattern of anxiety affecting college and university students across the country.