Destigmatizing mental health issues

Fifteen per cent of undergraduate students will be diagnosed with mental illness, study says

Jamie Gray
Image by: Tyler Ball
Jamie Gray

For Jamie Gray, Sci ’09, support from friends is crucial to identifying and acknowledging mental illness.

Gray, who was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder after he came to Queen’s, said he went to Kingston General Hospital for diagnosis after his friend in nursing suggested he do so.

“She was really the only one that could say, ‘Hey, look, you fit the bill here, go to the hospital,’” he said. “So I think a lot of it is friends’ support, someone saying that, ‘Look, your behaviour is pretty wacky here. It’s not a characteristic of the person I know.’”

The Globe and Mail reported on Sept. 20 that 15 per cent of undergraduate students will be diagnosed with mental health issues while they’re at university.

More than half of the students with mental health issues don’t report them or seek help, the article said.

Mental illness commonly emerges at university. Students are away from their families and face triggers like break-ups, drug use, pressure to achieve high grades and financial pressures, the article said.

Gray said he thinks there may be more cases of mental illness on campus than are reported because of a lack of awareness about mental health.

“It’s my impression that there’s a large population of students that have mental illness and maybe don’t know it or do know it and don’t realize that they can be classified a certain way and there’s a body of administration that’s designed to support those people,” he said.

Gray said he thinks the undergraduate lifestyle makes students especially susceptible to mental health problems.

“In the campus style of living you have a lot of freedom and you have a lot of opportunity to manifest that mood disorder like not sleeping, or eating or exercising well or not getting out in the sun … which are very important things to having a stable mental health,” he said, adding he thinks people in their early 20s are particularly at risk because their brains are still developing. Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) Director Mike Condra said the office sees students with a wide range of mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and substance abuse.

Depression, anxiety and eating disorders are the most common, he said.

Condra said there’s been an increase in the number of students seeking help for mental health-related issues over the past few decades. “Most university campuses are reporting that over the last 20 years they’ve seen a significant number of an increase in students coming with mental health problems,” he said.

Condra said he thinks the increase in students seeking help may be linked with recent efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness.

“Over the last five years we’ve done a lot of work as a community and a culture of de-stigmatizing mental health [problems], so people find it a little easier to seek help,” he said. “But we’re not there yet, there’s still a lot of work … to de-stigmatize mental health.”

Condra said the stigma associated with mental health may relate to false stereotypes students hear.

“They’ve heard that people with mental health problems are weak or they’ve heard people with mental health problems get locked up,” he said.

Condra said there tends to be a spike in the number of students who seek assistance with mental health issues around exam time.

“At the time of midterms and final exams, when students are at high levels of pressure, we tend to see more people who are in distress,” he said. “We tend to also see some people throughout the full year who come with significant mental health problems.”

Condra said HCDS doesn’t turn away students who are seeking help.

“As much as it sounds impossible, nobody gets turned away,” he said. “We have students who come to see a counsellor and they get seen for an initial assessment within a day or a couple of days at most.”

Gray said he worked with Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) after his diagnosis.

“They basically outlined what resources were available to me, which is basically like extra exam time, working in a private room,” he said, adding that he’s used the provision for one set of exams. “I feel like my mental illness is under control.”

He said he thinks students should learn more about mental health so they don’t have misconceptions about it.

“I think that it’s important that people really consider their mental health, especially at this formative age, because establishing whether or not you have some kind of treatable—which is not to say curable—mental disorder will help you all throughout life,” he said. “This is the time to do it.”

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