Special student groups at higher risk of mental illness
Reprinted from the "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2008
We all know about the usual stresses of college: all-night study sessions, difficult professors, still writing papers at 8 a.m. for that 8:30 a.m. class, student loans and keeping grades up.
No surprise then, that the number of students reporting their stress as overwhelming is on the rise.1 But what about stresses in your life that have nothing to do with academics? Students today are more diverse than ever; and with diversity can come challenges. Are there things about simply being who you are that can add to the stress of getting a higher education? Absolutely.
Working students or students with children—Students who are working to support themselves or their families, and/or raising children are faced with extra demands on their time. It’s recommended that post-secondary students spend three to three and a half hours on homework for each hour of time spent in class. If you’re taking five three-credit classes, that’s an average of 45 to 53 homework hours per week.2 Add on top of that your hours actually in class and spent working and/or with family, and you have burnout just waiting to happen.
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Students—College is often a time when sexual exploration can lead to the discovery or acceptance of same-sex sexual preference or alternate gender identity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or questioning (GLBTQ) students often face stigma/discrimination or social isolation. Whether you’re just discovering your sexual preferences or have known about them for a long time, struggling to sort out sexual identity, or hide it, can heap on the stress. And, if you come out about your sexual preferences while in college, you may be facing tension as family and friends try to adjust.
International students—BC universities are attended by students from all over the world. At the University of British Columbia, for example, there are 5,420 international students.3 As an international student, you not only have to deal with normal college pressures, but you have the added pressure of adjusting to a new culture on your own. You can experience culture shock, academic-system differences, and maybe even a language barrier. Connecting with social supports can be very difficult if you don’t know that they exist or how to find them.
Is stress a mental illness?
No. It isn’t. But while stress isn’t the same thing as mental illness, in large amounts it can contribute to mental illness.4 With stress on the rise on college campuses, counsellors are also seeing a rise in the number of students reporting mental illness on campus.1, 5 The campus environment has even been called a “mental-illness incubator.”
Students with disabilities—With advances in medical treatments, more students with disabilities are able to attend college than ever before. There is also more awareness of how to accommodate students who have disabilities. This doesn’t mean that if you have a disability, you aren’t facing huge obstacles. In new and unfamiliar environments, you must work to find on-campus resources. In high school you probably had small class sizes and specialized attention. On huge campuses you are just one face in a sea of many. Stigma, either real or perceived, can prevent you from feeling comfortable reaching out to new people. You may also have the added stress of adjusting to the new accommodations set for you. Arranging the accommodations on your own can also be stressful. If you have a physical challenge, you may have a hard time finding your way around campus or participating in regular lectures.
If you have learning challenges, you may need to work extra hard to keep up with the challenging academic demands of college.
e-Learners: The education system now offers new ways to access post-secondary education for people whose lives are too busy to fit in classes or who live in remote areas. Online study might be a wonderful solution for you, but it can also add extra stresses. You lose the face-to-face social networking that goes with being in a classroom setting. This loss can leave you feeling isolated. Not having scheduled classes means you really have to motivate yourself to do the readings and homework. This can be especially hard if having enough time is already an issue for you.
The good news
Not all students facing these extra challenges will develop problems with stress. And, if you belong to any of these groups, going to school can open doors that may not have been available to you even a generation ago. By bravely embracing the challenges that school presents, you are redefining what it is to be a student. You may even inspire other people facing unique challenges to pursue their studies; ensuring that our college landscape will remain wonderfully diverse for a long time to come.
About the authorMegan is a Communications Officer at the Canadian Mental Health Association, the editorial assistant of Visions and a recent college graduate.
Sherman, D. (2008, February 9). Our students are hurting. The Gazette. www.canada.com/montrealgazette/news/story.html?id=2afc4b1e-6a9b-46da-8085-6644720e0899&k=77717.
This calculation of time spent per full-time student per week is based on one hour of class time for every credit, and five, three-credit courses. To find out how many hours you’ll spend on homework, multiply the number of hours you spend in class by 3 or 3.5.
University of British Columbia, “International Students” homepage. www.international.ubc.ca.
Canadian Mental Health Association. (n.d.). Coping with stress. www.cmha.ca/data/1/rec_docs/403_CMHA_coping_with_stress_EN.pdf.
Arehart-Treichel, J. (2002). Mental illness on rise on college campuses. Psychiatric News, 37(6). http://pn.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/37/6/6.