Weighing in on mental health and school

Two counsellors and a student discuss stress, anxiety, and doing well in school

It can be difficult, especially during the winter months, for students to feel they’re at their healthiest. Pressure from school, friends, and family can be daunting when the sun barely shines. Grades can suffer, emotions turn dark. Young people aged 15-24, according to Statistics Canada, are more likely to suffer from mood disorders than any other age group. At Unews.ca, we want to share the struggles facing students, and to shed light on what counsellors are doing to help. This is part one of a series on stories surrounding mental-health issues on campus. 

Long-term stress and anxiety can lead to depression. (Photo: Tanya Kunwongse)

According to Statistics Canada, 17 per cent of Canadians over 15 – approximately 4.9 million people – considered themselves in need of mental health care in 2012. Young people at university and entering the job market can feel particularly vulnerable.

That’s why we have created a panel to look at the issue. Our three panelists include David Mensink, a counsellor and psychologist who specializes in anxiety reduction and stress management; Jennifer Murphy, a photographer, comedian, and fellow journalism student who copes with anxiety; and Laura Burke, the co-ordinator of a mental health peer support initiative through Dalhousie University.

Some comments have been edited for brevity.

To start off, Jennifer Murphy shares her story:

“I first studied journalism at Carleton University after I graduated from high school. In my second year, I started having panic attacks. I would obsessively read and memorize textbooks, and the higher my grades were, the worse my anxiety would become; I was waiting for people to realize I wasn’t smart, I was just acting like a machine.  I felt like a fraud because I’ve always had trouble understanding things and the way I coped with it is to retreat and find a way around it instead of through it.

“It took me a while to seek help because I felt like I was admitting to a failure. It also made me nervous, so I avoided it. I have been able to keep up with schoolwork through medication and therapy. I definitely feel it every single day, especially in journalism…reporting on things quickly and effectively is difficult for me, because each person I approach is a mountain… 

“It’s hard for me to talk to people, but I’ve learned I have to do it because it’s important on a personal level to work through it, but generally speaking, for other people with mental illness, to make it less taboo.”

~ Jennifer Murphy

Q. What are the most common misconceptions about long-term stress and anxiety?

David Mensink:
The three most common misconceptions are:

1.  “It’s all in your head.”

2.  “It will just go away on it’s own.”

3.  “It’s a sign of weakness.”

Jennifer Murphy:
I guess that it is a weakness and means you aren’t capable of being strong. Because everyone deals with a certain level of anxiety, those who have an easier time with it are prone to judge those who have a harder time with it.

Laura Burke:
I think the most common perceptions are that a) they are “normal” b) sustainable, and c) they help us to get things done.  Some degree of stress is, of course, normal, but long-term and continuous stress and anxiety can end up taxing our adrenal system, cause cortisol (stress hormone) dysregulation, which ultimately can lead to depression.  I think that as humans in this academic world, it is extremely important to help build resilience: to learn self-care, and to develop a community of support.  The illusion that the more anxiety and stress one is feeling, the better we perform, is of course not always true.

Q. Do you think the number of students seeking support for anxiety related to school-work has increased since the last decade? If so, why do you think that is?

David Mensink:
Yes, definitely.  The number of students seeking help for anxiety related to both academic and personal matters increases each year.  The causes of the continued increase are varied.  For example, the pressures on students to excel seem to be increasing as in higher grades to get accepted to professional and graduate schools.  Also, the financial pressures require more and more students to work part-time thus putting a drain on the time they might have to study.

Jennifer Murphy:
I think it probably has increased. It’s talked about more and hopefully the services provided are helpful and are not being abused.

Laura Burke:
I think this is likely to be true.  It may have to do with a reduction in stigma, and an increase in knowledge about services that are available, and an increase in help-seeking behaviour among students due to the normalization of these supports.

Q. How can long-term stress and anxiety affect a student’s work in school?

David Mensink:
Typically, long-term stress can result in burnout; fatigue, and hopelessness.  At severe levels, in can result in “giving up” and “dropping out.”

Jennifer Murphy:
When you’re filled with anxiety, at least from my experience, you feel like you’re at the bottom rung of a ladder. Everyone else can do things better – they look better, think better, act better. They are smarter and more capable. Trying to be your best self underneath the weight of those feelings is extremely difficult, and can definitely get in the way of your schoolwork.

Laura Burke:
Stress and anxiety can often be exacerbated by perfectionism and competition.  A student may get into a situation where they are so stressed that they need accommodations, and choosing to opt for a disability status may not be appropriate, and is not something every student wants to do, due to stigma.  So, people can get themselves into situations where they end up putting their schoolwork before their health, which is an understandable but unhealthy thing to do.

Q. What are school institutions doing to help students? What more can they improve on?

David Mensink:
At Dalhousie, we have an active group of trained professionals to help students.  We offer individual counselling and group counselling for students.  We also provide consultation to the university community regarding mental health.  The main improvement would be to increase funding to university counseling centers to hire more trained professionals.  Finally, university wide programs on identifying and referring students in need also help in the long term.

Jennifer Murphy:
I’m not sure about this one. I’ve never really sought out help in a university setting because I have outside support.

Laura Burke:
We can advocate for a fall break, and can take action in all sorts of little ways which can work to change a culture of perfectionism, competition and intellectual elitism (which creates shame and a reduction in help-seeking behaviour) into more of a healthy, supportive, community-oriented and open-minded place to learn – one that acknowledges our vulnerabilities and the wisdom that can emerge from them.

Q. Student unions organize puppy rooms and snack study sessions to relieve stress. Do you think events like these help at all?

David Mensink:
Yes, these are nice popular touches that can help students “feel good” even if for a short time.  These programs do not resolve the problems but can be helpful as an adjunct to more intensive help like counselling.

Jennifer Murphy:
I’ve never experienced one of these, but I could see if you have light anxiety this might help. For deeper mental health issues I think more needs to be done.

Laura Burke:
I think that they do.  It is important to realize that we need more community-oriented, resilience-building efforts around campus.  One helpful direction to move in might be to try to integrate these efforts to foster understanding and support into our academic systems.  When professors and administrators seem approachable and encourage students by inspiring their humanity to blossom, we will not only have less students experiencing stress, anxiety and burnout, but we will perhaps see a more compassionate and thoughtful group of graduates.

 

 

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