Mental health on campus

Right now thousands of soon-to-graduate high school students are working hard to finish their semester and waiting to hear from colleges and universities about admission next Fall.

It’s an exciting and nerve wracking time as the class of 2013 prepares to embark on the next phase of life.

For many of today’s young people, the post secondary experience is proving to be a stressful one and it seems mental health issues are on the rise among this group.

Health services directors at universities and colleges across the country say they are busier than ever before with mental health requests.

At Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario, the number of mental health patients at campus health clinics has tripled in the past decade. Students not in immediate danger can easily wait up to three months for an appointment with a psychiatrist.

Many agree this is now the fastest growing health issue at most academic institutions and some universities (such as Simon Fraser here in BC) are adding psychiatrists to their staff simply to cope with increased demand.

A possible reason for the increase in demand could be improved awareness of mental health issues among young people. More students are aware of symptoms of mental illness and may be willing to seek help. Also, many students are already diagnosed with a mental illness when they arrive at post secondary school.

However, this is not likely the only reason for rise in mental health service requests on campuses today.

Canadian statistics of mental illness prevalence among post secondary students aren’t available, but US studies say 35 per cent of students felt so depressed in a given year they found it hard to function and 10 per cent reported seriously considering suicide.

Another American study found 80 per cent of students feel stressed in their daily lives and more than 60 per cent struggle to motivate themselves. In spite of this, only 20 per cent said they would consider taking advantage of mental health services on campus.

Some factors that could contribute to the increased stress and mental distress among today’s students include the pressure to achieve high marks as well as the ever escalating cost of tuition and living expenses.

In addition, this is quite a stressful time of life with many changes and big decisions to make. Stressors such as starting a new program at school, moving away from home, deciding a career direction, beginning new relationships and learning to be financially independent are faced by many at this age. Add late nights, binge drinking and other common post secondary activities, and it’s easy to see how mental health could suffer.

Unfortunately, many mental illnesses can be triggered by stressful life events or transitions and late adolescence/early adulthood is a peak time for many psychiatric conditions to surface.

A few simple lifestyle adjustments could help you keep stress to a minimum when starting or returning to school this year.

Try not to take on more than you can handle. Be realistic when choosing your course load and extra curricular activities. Don’t procrastinate. If you leave all your work to the last minute, it makes sense that you will be more stressed as you scramble to get things finished on time.

Get enough sleep every night – disrupted sleep can trigger mental health symptoms. Avoid substances such as excessive caffeine, alcohol or drugs. These can increase or trigger anxiety. Get regular exercise. Take time to do something relaxing and fun.

If you have already been diagnosed with a mental illness, I encourage you to seek treatment before returning to school. You will function much better if your illness is stable at the start of a new semester. Once you are in treatment, it is important to follow your doctor’s advice and treatment plan.

When you arrive at school, find a good doctor and familiarize yourself with available services. Many post secondary institutions can provide assistance such as quiet exam rooms, extra time on exams and other concessions for relevant psychiatric issues.

If you start to feel depressed, anxious or overly stressed while at school, don’t try to self medicate with alcohol or drugs. This will not help in the long run, could worsen symptoms and lead to addiction. Seek help through your campus health system.

Dr. Latimer, president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and local psychiatrist, can be reached at (250) 862-8141 or [email protected]. Columns can be found at www.okanaganclinicaltrials.com.

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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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