While more university students are coming into campus health centres with greater mental health challenges than in the past, it may not necessarily be a negative sign.
Don Stewart, director of the University of Manitoba Student Counselling and Career Centre, said that the centre sees between 800 to 1,000 students each year. While that number has remained fairly stable, Stewart explained that students are coming to the centre with more serious mental health issues that sometimes need more frequent, specialized contact.
“We’re also seeing students who are perhaps more willing to access counselling and therapeutic resources than years gone by,” said Stewart, who also pointed out that there may be less stigma attached to seeking out counselling than in the past.
Stewart felt that seeing more students on campus with mental health issues is a positive thing “because that means the post-secondary environment is now something that’s accessible to them, as opposed to perhaps 10 years ago it may not have been.”
Connie Krahenbil, executive director of the Manitoba division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, felt that mental health agencies have done a better job in recent years of debunking the stigma around mental health.
“I find youth more generally accepting [ . . . ] and more open about talking about some of the challenges that they’re facing,” said Krahenbil.
According to Statistics Canada, approximately one in five Canadians aged 15 to 24 surveyed showed symptoms of a mental health issues, though only 32 per cent of Canadians who experienced problems associated with mental illness sought out professional help.
“If you look at Canada, that’s like six million people and only 30 per cent of them will reach out for help,” said Krahenbil.
“That’s really unfortunate, so it’s really good to see, even though it could be seen as ‘Oh my goodness, there’s more people,’ I don’t really think that’s the case. I think more people are recognizing they need to get help.”
A recent Canada-U.S. study found that approximately 25 per cent of university students coming through campus health care centres showed symptoms of depression.
Elizabeth Saewyc, a University of British Columbia professor of nursing and adolescent medicine and one of the lead investigators of the study, said the study was a “snapshot in time” of the students that come through campus health centres for treatment of anything from a sports injury to migraine headache.
She said the results of the study may not necessary mean that more students are struggling with mental health issues.
“[ . . . ] It could be that it’s always been that many students, we just haven’t had the opportunity to measure it to see that it’s that many students,” said Saewyc.
“That said, I think that clearly what this shows is that a fair number of our students on campuses are struggling with stress and challenges in their lives that may be contributing to possible depression.”
An important thing to remember when analyzing mental health issues in students is that the transition can be very difficult for some students, said Saewyc.
“For a lot of people, this is a major change in terms of leaving home, sometimes even leaving the same place where you grew up,” said Saewyc.
“If you don’t know all the different ways you can cope, it certainly can contribute to challenges adjusting and being able to cope with things.”
University of Manitoba Students’ Union president Heather Laube said that she has seen an increase in need for counselling services on campus.
“[ . . . ] It’s a stressful environment on the best of days, and given the course loads with work and extracurriculars on top of that, it becomes a stressful time for anyone. The more services we can provide for students, the better,” she said.
Lynn Smith, executive director of Student Services and Student Affairs on campus, said that there is a wait list for students looking to be assigned a counselor to see on regular basis at the U of M but “a student who comes in and needs to be seen right away will be seen right away”.
“There’s nobody in dire need who can’t see a counselor. [ . . . ] we want to be able to provide appropriate and timely service to students,” she said.