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Student Mental Health, a silent epidemic

Student mental health problems are an epidemic. We are a class of citizens at war with ourselves; a social platoon being toughened up for the “real world.” What is our identity? No longer yoked to the family name, we find ourselves isolated in a global machine, not sure where we can slip-in to become society’s useful cog — not sure if we even want to.

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“It took all of my effort to pretend,” said Lindsey Webber, describing what she called her “war with depression” to a room full of teary-eyed students. “I got good at creating a mask, until I lost myself beneath it. I didn’t know who I was. Who am I?”

Student mental health problems are an epidemic. We are a class of citizens at war with ourselves; a social platoon being toughened up for the “real world.” What is our identity? No longer yoked to the family name, we find ourselves isolated in a global machine, not sure where we can slip-in to become society’s useful cog — not sure if we even want to. We are not our job, not our studies and declared major, social media profile or Herschel backpack. We are the frantic youth rushing to appease, burying our yearning in a text that will never satiate our desire for meaning, acceptance or understanding; we are the ones dying for the answer to the question, “Who am I?”

Lindsey Webber spoke at the Movies 4 Mental Health event in the Student Union Building (SUB) on October 5. Lindsey sat alongside a panel of school counsellors at the front of the room, each doing their part to confront the stigma and silence surrounding mental health. Lindsey, like most young adults, didn’t fully understand the symptoms of her mental health issues growing up. Many people, even students themselves thanks to stigma and shame surrounding the topic of mental health, are unaware of the gravity of the problem.

Young adults are extremely susceptible to emotional and mental instability. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 10 to 24, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Compound this with the notorious intensity of student life, where 84 per cent of students report elevated distress levels and 67 per cent of students harbour symptoms of mental health problems, as explained by Australian psychologist Helen M. Stallman in “Psychological distress in university students: A comparison with general population data,” and it would seem that student health would be a topic on the tip of every student’s tongue. But students aren’t open about it; you don’t talk about the anxiety, and your friends don’t mention their insomnia, irritation, or stress, and deeper we sink into the tar of silence and stigma.

There is a variety of reasons students are fighting mental health problems, according to a commission on mental health at Queens University in Ontario: everything from the “stress of moving away from home, to academic demands, social pressures, parents’ expectations, and a looming recognition of the tough job market awaiting them.” Students feel the need to compete as hard as we can in order to survive. The cost of tuition is plunging students into debt and the job market looks grim. Stats Canada shows the unemployment rate of people aged 15 to 24 at 14.3 per cent, a rate over twice the national average. Having a bachelor’s degree doesn’t guarantee a higher paying job anymore, and students are feeling more pressure to study longer, incur more debt, and work harder to make ends meet. After graduation, with no job and unmanageable quantities of debt, it is often expected that students work unpaid internships to, hopefully, get a position at the bottom rung of the competitive job market of their studies.

At UFV, students are attempting to confront the looming presence of mental health problems. October 3 to 7 was Mental Health Awareness week, and the campus was speckled with stress relieving activities. A puppy room with therapy dogs and snacks, painting in the SUB, a games room filled with laughing Jeopardy players, a canvas where students wrote negative emotions and splattered them with paint soaked sponges, a short film screening on mental health and a late night dance party, each working to help students become aware that their mental health is just like physical health, it needs to be looked after and taken care of, or it could get sick.

At the Movies 4 Mental Health event, Lindsay Webber explained how she grew up in a traditional family; discussing her struggles with sadness and irritation with her parents felt impossible because “they wouldn’t have known what to say anyways.” Lindsay’s depression came in waves of darkness from nowhere, leaving her feeling overwhelmed with irritation.

“This year was an especially hard year and I don’t really remember what set off this spiral downwards, I thought I felt okay and suddenly I could barely work up the energy to leave my house,” she said. “My main symptom is irritability. I can get so irritated I can’t function, can barely breathe, begin to vibrate and have to exclude myself from social settings and from communicating with anybody.”

Lindsay has been battling depression for nine years, but wasn’t diagnosed for the first three years. “I didn’t understand what was wrong,” she said. Being able to name her issue helped Lindsay. She started meeting a counsellor and was finally able to speak about her irritation.

“Counselling has taken a weight from me,” Lindsey explained. “I can talk to someone without having to worry about how they will respond, or what they will think. I’m not nervous about how talking about my struggles will affect them. I can just say how I feel.”

One of the people students can speak with is Tia Noble, a counsellor at UFV. Counselling is offered in room B214, near the Office of the Registrar. Tia sat beside Lindsay at the table in the Great Hall, and spoke about her experience with mental illness. Tia grew up in a family with a mother that suffered from severe depression. Her upbringing was tumultuous and emotionally strained, and she understands the difficulties of family life.

“It can feel overwhelming with nobody to talk to,” said Noble, her eyes tear-filled and full of compassion. “You don’t have to be suffering to seek help. Mental health is a very broad spectrum. Sometimes we just need to talk to someone who isn’t going to try and fix it, or feel awkward. Sometimes we just need someone who is going to understand.”

The counselling department is not only a place to go when you feel stress or anxiety, it is the best source for advice and information on issues related to learning, studying, time management, and academic performance. But even so, many students still feel nervous about going there. But official counselling isn’t the only option for stressed and overwhelmed students.

Ashley Hayes works as a trained volunteer at the peer resource and leadership centre in the Student Union Building, a place for students to go when they need someone to talk to. Trained volunteers staff it, a mix of people young and old, and from all different walks of life who understand the demands and stress of being a student.

“There is a huge stigma against counselling,” says Hayes. “We are not counsellors, we’re just fellow students who are here to talk. It’s a drop-in service, so no appointments, and no scheduled meetings, just people who understand student life but are one step removed.”

Ashley laughed about the question she gets most often: “People come looking for the cafeteria. We give a lot of directions.” But many students go to the peer resource centre to cry, laugh, scream, or vent about classes and relationships. Everyone is always welcome.

UFV is a school that is suffering from extremely high amounts of mentally distressed students. Nearly 60 per cent of UFV students will suffer depression-like symptoms, says Tia Noble, and 37 per cent will suffer anxiety. One could only hypothesise for the reasons behind these high numbers: youth raised in traditional families in a highly religious city may feel uncomfortable expressing themselves or talking about mental health, the long commute so many students drive to get to campus may play a factor, the university’s sense of remoteness or the lack of community students may feel as a result of these issues could also help explain UFV’s student mental health problem. University may feel like a cold place, a place where students wage a mental and emotional war for years on end, but it is imperative that students realize we are not alone.

“Who am I?” Lindsay Webber asked amongst a raptly attentive room. The words echoed throughout the silent Great Hall. It was a question that drilled to the core of each person in the room. Whether you were a student feeling stress over a difficult class, anxiety for lack of money, overwhelmed by the weight of new and looming responsibilities, or sad and alone with no apparent reasoning, Lindsey had touched on a deep emotional root when she so pointedly asked a group of strangers who she was.

None of us have the answers. I can’t tell you how to find yourself in a world with nine billion people all striving for some form of recognition. But we are here together, each of us cutting our own path through the wildness of life, but not alone. You are not alone. When the majority of students suffer from issues with mental health, the stigma should become the silence. Talk about your feelings with your friends, go scream at someone in the peer resource centre (trust me, they like it), meet a counsellor, or just check in with yourself. Is there anything you need? There is always someone to talk to.

The counselling department’s 10 ways to build resilience:

1) Make connections: Good relationships with close family members, friends, or others are important.

2) Accept that change is a part of living: Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations.

3) Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems: You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events.

4) Move toward your goals: Develop realistic, short-term goals.

5) Take decisive action: Act on adverse situations as much as you can.

6) Look for opportunities for self-discovery: People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss.

7) Nurture a positive view of yourself: Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.

8) Keep things in perspective: Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective.

9) Maintain a hopeful outlook: An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life.

10) Take care of yourself: Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly.

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