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College students at high-risk for mental disorders

Ashley Gaboury CUP Central Bureau Chief

WINNIPEG (CUP) – At a time in life when mental disorders are most likely to strike, experts in the mental health field are encouraging university students to talk more openly and honestly about how they are feeling to reduce stigma and increase awareness of mental illness and the importance of positive mental health.
The Canadian Mental Health Association cites suicide as one of the leading causes of death amongst Canadian 15 to 24 years of age, second only to accidents. The youth suicide rate in Canada is the third-highest in the industrialized world.
These statistics are familiar to Dr. Stanley Kutcher, professor of psychiatry and the Sun Life Financial chair in adolescent mental health at Dalhousie University and an expert in the area of adolescent mental health.
According to Kutcher, mental disorders are the most common medical illnesses for young people and 70 per cent of mental illnesses begin before the age of 25.
“The college years are the years in a person’s life when they are at highest risk for developing a major mental disorder, simply because that’s when (mental disorders) happen,” said Kutcher.
“The age that students are heading off to university or heading off to college are exactly those years when the mental illnesses strike. They are more vulnerable because they are outside their usual social supports and away from their families,” he said.
At university, students are more liking to be faced with lifestyles of partying, heavy drinking and little sleep that can make them more vulnerable to mental illness, Kutcher said.
Tracey Peter, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba, echoed that there are dangers to mental health that are introduced with the typical student lifestyle.
“I think there is a fine line between engaging in typical student behaviour and … where all of the sudden it starts having an impact on mental health and well being.”
Peters recently conducted a study on first-year sociology students at the university with a survey of questions related to mental health and well-being.
According to Peters, there are a small number of students who aren’t doing so well  – “languishing” – and a small number who are on top of their game – “flourishing” – in terms of their well-being, while most, she said, are somewhere in the middle.
“Most students are what is called ‘moderately healthy’. They are not really languishing but they are not really flourishing either. They’re doing OK,” said Peters.
Peters said her work challenges the idea of continuum with mentally ill people at one end and mentally healthy people at the other and the idea that if you’re not ill, you’re healthy.
She said that instead, she likes to think of mental illness and mental health as two separate issues.
“You can’t just look at key indicators of mental illness and if you don’t have that, then all of a sudden you’re healthy,” said Peters,
“Obviously people who are high on mental illness are going to be low on metal health but it is possible that someone could be high on mental illness and high on mental health … If (someone with a mental illness) has a good support network, they can have some really good psychological well being (and) they can function.”
According to Peters, students can improve their mental health by increasing their social connections and having an overall awareness of how they’re feeling.
“‘Do I like myself? Do I feel good about myself? What don’t I like about myself?’ and asking those really important questions. The reality is that most of those questions you ask are things that you can change,” said Peters.
David Ness, a professor and student counsellor at the university, said his counselling office sees students daily for counselling on mental health related issues.
In fact, his office, like those at many Canadian universities, sometimes has trouble keeping up with the demand.
“We are usually full during drop-ins on a daily basis,” Ness said. “Unfortunately, it is sometimes challenging for students to get in and see us but we do our best.”
Ness said the range of difficulties presented by students is everything any therapy service would expect.
“We get students presenting with anxiety and depression, histories of trauma and abuse, people with serious thought difficulties, stress and relationship issues,” said Ness.
Peters said that students are no different than anyone else when it comes to mental health issues.
“I think students are expected to have it all together, and the reality is that a lot of students are flourishing, some students are completely falling apart and most students are somewhere in the middle,” she said. “Some days they are flourishing, some days they are languishing, and it’s important to acknowledge that.”
She stressed open and honest discussion about mental health.
“That’s the only way that we are going to reduce stigma and increase awareness because all of us are affected in some way by it.”

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