Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 8-9
Over the last 20 years or so, in BC and across Canada, colleges and universities have expanded their programs and have opened them to a wide variety of learners. This has been largely in response to today’s labour market, which demands more basic training, higher-level credentials and frequent upgrading of skills.
The good news is that publicly funded institutions are probably more accessible and more flexible than ever before. Increasingly, students can opt to complete programs part-time, or in shortened, intensive formats, or online. The establishment of university-colleges in BC has led to strong competition among institutions to offer innovative programs that “ladder” directly into university studies.
Helping students survive and succeed once they’re in the door, however, remains an ongoing challenge.
Examples of common mental health problems presented at college and university counselling centres.*
* All names are fictitious.
Who are post-secondary students?
When we hear “college student,” we usually think “youth.” Certainly, the majority of college students (I’ll use this term to refer to those both in community colleges and in universities) are in the 18 to 24 age group.
An ever-increasing number, though, are mature learners returning to school after a long absence. Many have never been in college before. Many hold down demanding jobs and are raising families. Many are recent immigrants or international students adapting to a new language and culture. And most are making significant financial and other sacrifices to advance their education.
College mental illness on the rise
For at least a decade, college counsellors have sensed that the level of student distress and the severity of mental health problems on campus have been on the rise. This perception has been echoed across North America, and research has been done to explore and explain it. For example, in a recent major survey of college and university counselling centres across Canada, over 90% of centre directors agreed that the number of students presenting severe psychological issues has increased over the last five years. Among the many examples cited were increases in students presenting with personality disturbances, extensive psychiatric histories and higher levels of distress.1-2
It’s been suggested that pressures faced by today’s students (some of which are listed below) have also increased.
It’s also likely that advances in treatment—more effective medications with fewer side effects, and effective talk therapies—make post-secondary education a realistic goal (especially with adequate support) for some who would not have been able to attend college in the past.
To some, it may seem that college students have it easy—no job, no boss, flexible schedule, and all they have to do is keep up their homework. In reality, college life, while a positive experience for many, is full of stresses that may be hazardous to a student’s mental health.
When students find themselves in trouble, it’s often due to a combination of different forces. These may be divided into four categories: normal developmental issues, stresses of student life, individual challenges and vulnerabilities, and crises. Following are just a few common examples of each.
Normal developmental issues
Developing a realistic career goal
Clarifying values and priorities
Balancing connection to family and culture with growing individuality
Developing intimate relationships and exploring sexuality
Adapting to differences between high school and college, often including greater anonymity and less individual attention in college
Stresses of student life
Multiple assignments, exams, expectations
Academic pressure, need for higher grades, more credentials
Financial pressure, student debt
Juggling being a student with working and/or raising a family and/or extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, clubs, volunteer work, social life.)
Social and cultural isolation, for the many students living far way from their home communities
Pressure from peers, family, culture and self to “keep up”
Fears related to personal safety—traditionally, this meant fears related to, for example, assault or sexually transmitted disease; but more recently added are fears brought on by 9/11 and by campus attacks like those at Virginia Tech and, most recently, Northern Illinois University in the US, and Dawson College in Montreal.3
Individual challenges and vulnerabilities
History of moderate to severe depression or anxiety disorders, or other mental disorders
Past or current abuse, loss, trauma
Coping with mental health issues or problem behaviours of others (e.g., a chronically depressed parent, addicted sibling or abusive partner)
Negative associations and low self-esteem based on past experience with schools, learning, teachers
Ineffective or risky coping behaviours (e.g., disordered eating, addictions, self-harm, suicidal thinkin
Serious health problem or injury
Illness or death of family member or close friend
So, what can we do to support student mental health? All of the people who make up an academic community—instructors, administrators, support staff, student services professionals, college boards, student associations, parents and students themselves—can add support by staying compassionate, observant and actively involved.
Many colleges include in their mission statements a commitment to support the personal well-being of students, as well as their development as effective citizens. For example, Capilano College’s mission and values statement includes a commitment to “sustain all students’ personal growth and cultural enrichment.” Many different on-campus activities and services, offered both by the college and the Student Union, help to make this commitment concrete—for example, outreach initiatives (e.g., First Nations Awareness Week, Eating Disorders Awareness Week), film presentations, lunchtime workshops on study skills and life skills, and a club for lesbian and gay students.
All colleges should offer a wide array of student support services (health professionals, learning specialists, educational advisors and so on). To effectively meet the mental health needs of students, colleges must maintain well-staffed, accessible professional counselling services. College counsellors can support students not only by providing services directly to them, but also by educating teaching faculty, staff and administrators about how they can help students in distress. Also important are clubs and activities that help break through isolation by connecting students with one another.
Quite a number of institutions now offer courses or workshops on “student success.” These programs are typically open to all students and contribute to mental health and wellness by covering not only an array of study skills, but also topics like stress management, motivation and communication skills.
There is no doubt that the college years will be full of excitement, risk taking and growth. Let’s make sure we continue to provide a listening ear, a helping hand and a strong safety net.
About the author
Daniel is a counsellor at Capilano College in North Vancouver. He has worked in the post-secondary system,in Quebec and BC, for many years and is Past-President of the BC Post-Secondary Counsellors Association (www.bcpsca.com)
Crozier, S. & Willihnganz, N. (2006). Canadian Counselling Centre Survey. Kingston, ON: Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.
See also Kadison, R.D. & DiGeronimo, T.F. (2004). College of the overwhelmed: The campus mental health crisis and what to do about it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
At all of these institutions, students have been injured or killed by gunmen who entered college buildings and randomly opened fire.