10/29/2013 08:06 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Campus security on the front lines of student stress

As part CBC's special series Off-course On Campus examining issues surrounding student mental health, CBC's Mary Wiens speaks with security guards at Toronto's OCAD University, who often find themselves on the front lines.

Security guard Igor Weisberg works the reception desk at OCAD's well-known table top building, where students at the art and design school come to work on their projects.

Guards such as Weisberg are often the first responders in medical emergencies but they also handle mental emergencies, which are harder to spot.

"I've been a student myself, when you're studying and you have final exams, you're under a lot of pressure," he said. "We're all human beings, we all have emotions. So if in your personal life something goes wrong, it's like a domino effect."

A National Collegiate Health Assessment survey of OCAD students found than many were so depressed they found it difficult to function. It's a similar story at universities across the country.

A random sample of 353 students at OCAD-U responded to the survey. Fifty-one said they had deliberately injured themselves. Fifty-four said they'd seriously considered suicide, a handful said they actually tried to kill themselves. The idea of responding to that kind of call is Weisberg's worst nightmare.

"It's terrifying, it's personally terrifying," he said. "There might be a situation like that. You never know."

Jennifer Robinson is the clinical director of OCAD's Health and Wellness Centre.  While training OCAD's security staff, she asked them a true or false question: Does the Christmas season have a higher suicide rate than at other times of the year? Most said yes. She tells them that while suicide rates don't increase during the holidays, depression rates do.

This workshop is meant to teach the guards some basics about mental illness and give them a risk assessment tool they can use in an emergency. Robinson asks security staff how they've dealt with students who are overwhelmed. Igor's story makes it clear why security guards are key when students are in distress.

"I had this student several months ago, last semester, she suddenly starts crying, weeping. One of my guards calls me, and I came and said 'Do you need maybe to talk to somebody? She's like 'Yes I do.'"

Weisberg connected the student with one of OCAD's health and wellness workers.

"The next day she said thank you so much for helping me."

Weisberg said he can sense the times of the school year when students are feeling the most pressure.

"Oh yes at the end of the semester, two months before Christmas break. People are rushing, trying to get their projects done."

Alex, a teaching assistant, said breakdowns are almost the rule at this time of year. She's faced them herself.

"I've definitely seen that happen to a lot of students," she said. "To be a 100 per cent honest, I've suffered depression in the past, and I definitely did feel it coming back towards the end of my thesis. I could sort of feel those thoughts coming back and it took six weeks to dissipate afterwards. In some ways it's good because I've been there recently so I'm able to empathize."

At every university, you'll find that kind of passion among students, together with the stress of normal everyday challenges. But universities across the country are dealing with something more profound.  There's a difference between ordinary stress and mental illness. And for one Ontario university at least, it's all hands on deck to respond to a bewildering phenomenon that suggests university students are struggling with more than their marks.