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Mental health on campus: the mental health needs of university students

When we think of students heading off to university in the fall, mental health might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But it’s a topic that may merit more thought and resources.

University coincides with the age at which many psychiatric illnesses begin. In fact, most mental illnesses emerge by age 24, and many are likely to manifest themselves at university age, including anxiety, depression, substance use, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, first episodes of psychosis, and suicide.

“We think of university students as a privileged population, but the prevalence of mental illness is the same in university students as the rest of the young adult population,” says Dr. Joanna Barlas, a psychiatrist at Women’s College Hospital.

Studies confirm that mental health issues are not uncommon among university students. One survey by the American College Health Association in 2009 found that 15 per cent of students had been treated for a mental disorder in the previous year.

There are also high levels of distress among students: about half of students reported feeling overwhelmed by anxiety at some point in the previous six months, and one-third reported depression. One study found that university students were more distressed than other people in the same age group.

University counselling services are seeing an increasing number of students presenting with mental health issues, and some mental health professionals believe the severity of those issues is also increasing. But Dr. Barlas explains that this doesn’t necessarily mean that mental health problems are on the rise among students. It might mean that a higher proportion of students is seeking help. It could also reflect better treatment for existing problems: improved medications and therapies may mean that young people with mental health problems are now able to attend university, when those illnesses might have prevented them in the past.

The most common mental health conditions in university students are the same as those in the general population: anxiety and depression. Dr. Barlas notes that these are conditions with complicated causes that often include both biological and environmental risk factors.

“They may be biologically vulnerable, and then have added stressors such as leaving home, academic pressure, worries about the economy and job prospects,” she says. “Usually there is an environmental stress trigger for depression: financial, academic and relationship stress are common ones.”

Not surprisingly, many students present with symptoms at particularly stress-inducing periods, such as exam time. That can mean bottlenecks when large numbers of students seek mental health services at the same time, which can overwhelm campus counselling resources.

But even with the number of students trying to access mental health services, there may be many more with mental health problems who aren’t seeking treatment. Also, many students wait a long time between the development of symptoms and when they seek help.

One possible barrier to seeking care is the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. Stigma can come from external sources, but often people must overcome their own personal stigma – what they think about mental illness and about themselves – before seeking treatment.

Dr. Barlas notes that many universities are taking action against stigma by promoting wellness and a healthy environment on campus and trying to create an environment that is supportive of seeking help.

Another barrier to treatment may be lack of knowledge. Dr. Barlas explains that some students may not realize that they are experiencing mental illness. For example, a student who sleeps excessively and misses classes may believe she is lazy, not knowing that she is exhibiting symptoms of depression. Other symptoms that may indicate a mental health issue include social withdrawal, feeling hopeless, and changes in behaviour.

Students may also be unaware of services that are available to them. Finding out what type of counselling services are offered on campus may help.

If a student does have a mental illness, there may be services available for students with disabilities, and a counsellor may be able to suggest ways to accommodate the condition. For example, someone with anxiety may do better writing exams in a room by themselves.

“There are a lot of resources that university students may not be aware of,” says Dr. Barlas. “There is help available.”



This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Sept. 13, 2012

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  • Women's College Hospital