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Student mental health in focus this month

Prevention, treatment both important

To Unite Against Stigma, students, faculty and staff formed a green ribbon on King's College Circle Oct. 4. (photo by Caz Zyvatkauskas)

Health-care and health promotion professionals who work with university students are acutely aware of the challenges many students face and how those challenges often lead to more serious emotional or psychological problems.

Surveys of post-secondary education students across Ontario indicate that mental health issues top the list of problems that have a negative impact on their academic performance. According to the Ontario reference group data from a 2009 survey, almost 38 per cent of students reported that stress has a negative impact on their academics. In the same survey, almost 26 per cent indicated that anxiety had negatively impacted their academics, and almost 15 per cent indicated that depression had the same impact.

Reports from university counselling and health centres indicate that record numbers of students with mental health complaints are seeking services and resources. There has been no shortage of media attention given to concerns about student mental health, particularly at the post-secondary level. Some of these stories have indicated that, increasingly, students being seen by university staff, such as registrars and residence life staff, or through accessibility, counselling, or health services, are presenting with complex and often chronic mental health problems. According to most of the available data, the most common issues students present with at campus health and counselling services are symptoms related to stress, anxiety and depression.

There are many factors that play a role in the development of mental illness, but mental health does not refer simply to the absence of mental illness. Individuals with depression or anxiety may have very good mental health, just as someone who suffers from asthma or diabetes may have very good physical health. And, there is increasing evidence to suggest that, just as we do for our physical health, there are things that we can do every day to protect or enhance our emotional and psychological wellbeing and resilience. Foresight, a  government think-tank in the UK, came out with a report recently that identified five simple things people can do to improve their mental wellbeing.

Health and Wellness at the St. George campus, which includes the counselling and psychological services, health services and health promotion programs, has been building on the work done in the U.K.  They’ve partnered with programs and groups across campus to raise awareness throughout October about how students can proactively work to: develop a sense of community and belonging on campus; to build regular physical activity into their daily routines; to discover opportunities to learn outside the classroom and develop or fulfill other interests or passions; to take the time to explore the campus and surrounding; and to remember to give back to their community whenever possible.

The UniTe Against Stigma: help build the human ribbon event was the launch for the month’s activities. At noon on Oct. 4, hundreds of students came out to help build a human ribbon on King’s College Circle to raise awareness of mental health issues at the post-secondary level, and the stigma associated with mental illness.
On Oct. 13, the Faculty of Physical Education and Health will be hosting U of T’s Amazing Chase that will require team work, physical effort, and a good deal of competitive spirit of its participants. Costumes are optional.
Throughout the third week of October, there is a series of activities taking place at the Multi-faith Centre, Hart House and the Centre for International Experience that will encourage students to consider trying something new or possibly making time for something they used to enjoy: anything from poetry, to knitting, to yoga and meditation. Details can be found on the Health and Wellness website.

The awareness events end during the last week with a sponsored Five-buck Lunch at Hart House that explores the connection between food, mood and fitness.

As staff and faculty deal with our student population, it is important for us to take seriously these words by Agis Tsouros, an expert in public health at local, national and international levels: “The concept of the health-promoting university means much more than conducting health education and health promotion for students and staff. It means integrating health into the culture, processes and policies of the university. It means understanding and dealing with health in a different way and developing an action framework that blends such factors as empowerment, dialogue, choice and participation with goals for equity, sustainability and health-conducive living, working and learning environments.”    

Judy Vorderbrugge is the community health co-ordinator, health promotion programs for Health & Wellness at U of T.