Nearly two-thirds of students reported experiencing “overwhelming anxiety,” according to the latest Canadian national college health assessment.
Almost 45,000 Canadian post-secondary students were surveyed for the 2016 report and close to half (44.4 per cent) reported feeling so depressed that they had difficulty functioning. Thirteen per cent had seriously considered suicide.
It’s why so many Canadian schools are including mental health education in their orientation courses for new students on campus.
The University of Waterloo includes a PASS kit in every frosh kit handed out this year. PASS stands for panic anxiety stress support and each kit includes a stress toy, a sleeping mask and earplugs as well as “RE+Minder Cards.” Each card has concise mental health reminders offering suggestions on how to feel better quick.
One asks: “Are you thinking of suicide or self-harm? Call a crisis hotline,” with 1-800 numbers right under the tweet-length advice. Other cards remind students to perform simple tasks to check in with their stress levels at different times of the day.
The increased focus on mental health is very personal for Santa Ono, the president of the University of British Colombia, who made an extremely personal admission at a 2017 TEDx Talk in Vancouver.
“I tried to kill myself twice once at the age of 14 and once in my late 20s,” Ono said, explaining the feeling of inadequacy came from being the middle child between two child prodigies.
Ono never told his family about the unsuccessful attempt, and made a second, more serious attempt years later as a young academic at Johns Hopkins University.
“There were other several days where I would just be in my bed alone not having the energy or the will to get up to feed myself or to shower,” Ono told Global News.
“And so those are very low lows.”
Fortunately, he received treatment following his second attempt with medication and therapy, and that experience pushed him to make mental health a priority at UBC.
UBC has started a pilot project to make counseling services available 24 hours a day to ensure help is available anytime students need it. In the past counselors have only been around for normal office hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) Monday to Friday.
“Having lived this myself, some of my most difficult moments were at 2 a.m., perhaps in the first term right before examinations, and it’s at that exact moment that the counselor is not available,” Ono said in a recent interview.
Ono hopes by speaking out he can help dispel any stigma around mental illness.
A 2019 report by Jack.org showed 48.9 per cent of students said they thought that faculty would think differently of them if they knew the student sought mental health support.
At the University of Western Ontario, student leaders encourage new students to be more open about the stress they’re facing and how it’s making them feel by pairing up each frosh with two mentors called Sophs. One Soph is assigned from the student’s residence and the other is assigned from that student’s particular faculty.
“A lot of our goal is to talk about mental health and talk about you know students struggling with their mental health because it’s really important to address and normalize as well,” says Cecilia Liu, student programs officer for the University Students’ Council at Western.
They want to normalize talking about it because the level of anxiety is becomingly increasingly normal.
WATCH (Sept. 5, 2019): Prioritizing mental health as students head back to school
The 2019 Jack.org report noted 81 per cent of students say academic pressure is a major cause of mental illness, 54 percent responded it can come from social media and 40 per cent of students say financial pressure is a factor in creating mental health issues in their lives.
It’s why older students say those mentoring programs are so valuable, especially when you consider for some first-year students, university is the first time they’ve lived away from home.
“It helps having an upper-year student say, ‘This is how I’ve done, this may be different from your experience, it may not be the same, but these are some tips and advice I can give you as you navigate through your first year,’” said University of Western Soph Jonathan Passero.
Most schools in Canada have some kind of mental health plan in place to ensure someone is there to listen, when they decide to take that courageous first step away from the dark cloud of mental illness.
(with files from Simon Little)