A lack of support for students facing stressors of university life, including academics, finances, and reduced access to basic needs, has increased mental illness statistics in universities across Canada.

A study by Ryerson University reported that roughly 90 per cent of students feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, while more than 50 per cent reported a hopeless outlook regarding school and their daily lives.

In a June 2013 Globe and Mail article, Dr Su-Ting Teo, director of student health and wellness at Ryerson University, commented:

“There is the perception still, I think, in the public that students have it easy … I’m not saying that it isn’t [easy] for many students, but I don’t think people recognize just how much students have to juggle these days,” said Teo.

Literature from 1961 demonstrated the mystification of mental illness, including a book written by psychiatrist Thomas Szasz called The Myth of Mental Illness. In his book, Szasz held the belief that mental illness was fiction. He explained it was a result of the medical model not being capable of encompassing human struggles, and that mental health professionals diagnosed some problems as diseases.

These fixed judgements about mental health permeated into legislation, and formed a stigma for those affected by mental illness. They sparked a battle of beliefs around mental illness about whether it is self-caused or abnormal.

In an article published by The Ubyssey, the author notes that the Canadian government’s  student loan program doesn’t give its lenders concessions for short-term issues, such as mental health concerns. But concessions are granted to students diagnosed with a “permanent disability.”

On Jan. 9, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) submitted a policy paper to the federal government about cases of mental illness on university campuses, alongside recommendations for action.

“Many students hesitate about accessing supports related to mental health perhaps in part due to negative attitudes from peers and professors, who too often react with skepticism to requests of accommodation,” said CASA. “Depression, anxiety, and suicide rates have doubled since a Canadian Community Health Survey done in 2012, which found that “seven per cent of 15-to-24 year-olds were identified as having had depression in the past 12 months.”

In 2016, the National College Health Assessment survey compiled their findings on depression statistics, which showed “14.7 per cent of post secondary students had been diagnosed or treated for depression and 13.0 per cent of students reported seriously considering suicide within the last 12 months.”

In The Ubyssey article, Hanna Murray, UBC’s Graduate Student Society representative at CASA, explained that because many post-secondary institutions don’t have adequate support, mental illnesses are left untreated.

Two professors affected by mental illness—Santa Ono, who attempted to take his own life twice, and Michael Wilson, who lost his son Cameron to suicide 23 years ago—contributed to the Globe and Mail in their article “Students are not fragile flowers– we must care about their mental health”.

“While physical health is easy to measure and talked about openly, mental health is under the surface and often not talked about at all,” said Wilson and Ono.

Western University inspires the rest of us to change for the better through a student referendum passed in early February that demanded improvement to available mental health services. Nearly 90 per cent of students voted to prioritize mental health and wellness.

“There are four pillars of the plan: to promote resiliency, provide effective health communications, examine the stresses of academic life, and to ensure that school has accessible and effective mental health services,” said vice-provost John Doerksen on CBC’s London Morning program on Feb.13, 2018.

By looking critically at the environment of many post-secondary institutions, how can we use preventative measures effectively to reduce student stress before the situation becomes critical?

The Ubyssey article also features Shifrah Gadamsetti, CASA board chair and registered nurse, who discussed how money is distributed when it comes to mental health care. Gadamsetti pointed out that most funding is allocated toward “fixing” issues as they arise, instead of preventative care.

“Imagine if the standard of treatment was equal for mental and physical health conditions,” said Wilson and Ono in their article. “Not only would it significantly improve the lives of those living with a mental illness, it would save lives.”

Featured Image: Post-secondary education can be an incredibly stressful time, with many demands on students. | Pixabay