Thursday, 19 January 2012

Understanding Student Mental Health: The Invisible Stigma at University

Last semester I remember sitting  in the living room of the house I grew up in, located close to Toronto’s border on the East side of town. Surrounded by 8 – 10 of my closest family members, the familiar and comforting atmosphere of tasty white wines, home-made appetizers and cheesy holiday music filled the room with bright warmth while keeping me in a state of fine relaxation. Conversation funnelled into the usual topics: who read what book, which part of the house needed fixing, Toronto’s political blunders, and the latest gossip in the neighbourhood. I found myself lost again in the dialogue of everyone, tuning in and out of random chats and listening to the subtle nuances of every statement. Eventually, the topic changed to stress management in adulthood, and I recall making a comment regarding my experience with students and the abnormal amount of anxiety and stress issues prevalent in the university community. Perhaps not at all outside of the norm, someone from across the room was quick to chime in with a verse along the lines of ‘just wait until you have to pay a mortgage!’, much to the support of the entire room. My head started turning quietly again.

            I like to think I am a curious person by nature, and part of me is really good at generating too many questions in some of the most common places. So, when my judgement on mental health in the student population was challenged, I began wondering where it was coming from and why. Is there even a correlation between mental illness and students in Canada? If so, why don’t we hear about it more often? What’s stopping students from accessing resources for help? Is there adequate support for these people? So, it was off to the virtual library for me again to find some answers. And the results, you might find, are surprising. 

           I am placed in the unique dual position of both student and support. I am also not above saying that being a student makes me stressed and a little anxious at times, but it can be hard to compare my experience to some of clients we see at York University’s Student Counselling Centre (CDS). A student suffering from a mental illness is at high risk of being caught in the delegitimizing of others, which can in turn stop said student from seeking preventative care. Not accessing your resources early only exacerbates a mental illness, often causing severe and debilitating symptoms like manic depression, severe anxiety and suicidal tendencies; all of which are, not surprisingly, quite prevalent in the university undergraduate population in Canada. To give you a real sense of the calibre of this problem, I’ll use an independent study released in the Journal of American College Health, which conducted research on 16 universities in Canada and 7800 student’s total, measuring all levels of mental illness prevalence. The findings are mind-boggling when you consider that ‘Thirty percent of the students in the sample reported elevated physiological distress, which varied significantly according to sex, region, year of study, and recreational academic orientation’ and that ‘Rates of elevated distress were significantly higher among the students than among the general population in Canada.’ (Pg. 67). Another study, published by Counselling Psychology Quarterly, focused specifically on the experience of students at Coventry University, UK, and found that overall  Within the last 12 months nearly three quarters of students had experienced anxious or depressed moods, or, personal, mental, nervous or emotional problems, with a third of students failing to seek help’. Furthermore, research proved that ‘Ethnic minority students were more likely to report problems and less likely to seek help when compared to white students. Male students were less likely to seek help compared to female students.’ (Pg. 247). Why are such a high number of students refusing to seek support while battling a mental illness? What is causing the disconnect between admittance and treatment? Clearly, we have a problem.

            I think back to that day I started asking myself these questions and realise something interesting. Every person sitting in that room protesting the ‘life gets harder after university’ note had never actually attended university. So, it’s hard to say why one would fashion the opinion that university students have nothing to worry about, especially as the job market becomes more competitive and the expectations for accomplishments are higher than ever. Maybe it’s that ‘gap in generational knowledge’ that people talk about, but I think it runs deeper than that. Think of all the pressures and challenges a university student will experience in a short amount of time: new social norms, cultural variances, the questioning of personal values, endless deadlines, relentless synthesis of information, the list goes on. Taking a full course load is attributable to the commitment of a full-time job. Now add on other possible responsibilities like part-time work, dependants at home or extra-curricular activities. Examine these variables and you may begin to understand why this has become such a problem. 

As a side note, I still love my family and am not attempting to put anyone down by writing this post. However, the issue of resource accessibility and the stigma we attach to student mental health needs to be improved drastically if we expect to have strong, capable young leaders in today’s society. It’s time to change the way we see mental illness in university. 


A.P. Turner; C.L. Hammond; J.H. Barlow and M. Gilchrist. (2007). Coventry students’
experience of mental health problems. Counselling Psychology Quarterly. Vol.20,
A. Demers ; B. Newton-Taylor; L. Gliksman and M.A Edward. (2001). The prevalence of
elevated psychological distress among Canadian undergraduates: findings from the
1998 campus survey. Journal of American College Health. Vol.50, pp.67-72.

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