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Mental Health

Student Mental Health at Simon Fraser University

Pam Whiting, MSW

Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 10-11

For 26 years I worked as a clinical social worker and then as a health care planner and administrator. In August 2006 I saw a great opportunity for moving health promotion and early intervention mandates forward. I left Fraser Health Authority, where we encountered students who had mental health issues, to work at Simon Fraser University as the director of Health & Counselling Services.

The Health & Counselling Services team is made up of doctors, nurses, counsellors, a physiotherapist, medical office assistants and various administrative staff. There are also health promotion specialists who offer the students on campus information on health care topics such as active living, good nutrition and balanced lifestyle. In addition to tailoring information sessions to requests by student groups, these health promotion specialists do outreach at special events and through a wellness fair on campus.

The health and counselling staff work together with other Student Services programs, such as the Centre for Students with Disabilities and SFU International. We want to provide a broad range of health care and services that support the various needs of our students. This includes linking with services in the broader community, such as the Early Psychosis Intervention Program and other community mental health services.

Recently, a group of staff, faculty and student representatives began working on the development of an SFU-wide Mental Health Strategy. The purpose of the strategy is to raise awareness of the whole continuum from mental health and wellness to mental illness. It will inform, guide and recommend a plan of action to administration, faculty, staff, students and their families.

What is the mental health picture on campus?

The issue of student mental health is not a new phenomenon. As early as 1918, the dean of students at Harvard University reported student mental health problems as the number one health challenge for both college and university health administrators.1

From what I’ve read, experienced and heard from our staff at SFU and other campuses across BC, mental health issues and illness appear to be on the rise. And, as a society, we’re becoming more educated and better able to recognize these conditions. They’re also more complex and more visible on college and university campuses than ever before.

The American College Health Association National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA) is a US national research survey used to help college health service providers, educators, counsellors and administrators learn more about their students.2 It provides the largest known data set on the health of college students and is widely used across Canada and the US.

We used this survey tool in the fall of 2007. Our results were similar to those found at other Canadian and US campuses surveyed in the ACHA-NCHA study.2 From a sample of 4,000 SFU students surveyed and 1,499 respondents, we found:

  • 17.5% of students surveyed reported experiencing depression
  • 12.2% had an anxiety disorder
  • 10.4% experienced seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
  • 18% reported at least one of these three conditions as affecting their academic performance

Of the 18% reporting that a mental health condition affected their academic performance:

  • 55% reported feeling hopeless
  • 39.4% reported feeling so depressed it was difficult to function
  • 11% reported seriously considering attempting suicide
  • Of the 11.5% of respondents who reported being diagnosed with depression:
  • 35% had been so within the last 12 months
  • 19% reported currently being in counselling therapy
  • 21.3% reported currently taking medication for depression

What about causes?

While studies like these measure rates of occurrence, they don’t provide clear answers as to what the causes are.

For some students already diagnosed with a mental illness, effective early intervention and different forms of treatment have allowed them to attend university and achieve academic success. In order to succeed, these students often need some ongoing help with medication, relapse prevention and other kinds of support.

For other students, many of whom are at an age where mental illness is most likely to appear for the first time, a number of psychosocial factors might trigger the development of mental health issues. For example:

  • the transition from living with family to pursuing greater independence
  • moving to and from other countries to go to school
  • financial need
  • juggling work and studies
  • a tendency towards perfectionism, and other pressures to succeed

What can be done? What are we doing?

By this point you’re probably wondering what can be done to help post-secondary students who have, or are at risk of developing a mental illness.

Mental health promotion—including raising awareness, reducing stigma and addressing the overall post-secondary environment as well as the needs of individuals—is key. Having a coordinated approach and resources available on campus is critical. It’s also important to partner with the broader community for those services that cannot be provided on campus.

Through the BC Partners Campus Project,* Simon Fraser University is working alongside a variety of mental health organizations and other campuses across BC. Our goal is to ensure that our campuses are better equipped to prevent the development of mental health issues and to better support those who need mental health support.

 
About the author

Pam is the Director of Health & Counselling Services at Simon Fraser University. She previously worked for Fraser Health Authority as a health planner and administrator. Pam has a master’s degree from McGill University, where she focused on social policy, administration and professional practice.

Footnotes:
  1. Benton, S.A. & Benton S.L. (2006). College student mental health: Effective services and strategies across campus. Washington DC: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
  2. For more information about the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment visit www.acha-ncha.org/overview.html.

 

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