Mental health issues on the rise
On September 5, Maclean’s magazine released an article entitled “The Broken Generation,” giving an in-depth look into what they called a “crisis” affecting students across North America.
In this age of high-stress schooling, coupled with high unemployment after graduation, more and more university students are struggling with mental illness, the report claimed. McMaster is no exception to this trend.
Dr. Debbie Nifakis, Associate Director of Counselling at the Student Wellness Centre, says there is definitely a trend of more mental health issues coming to light.
“I’ve been working in the field for a very long time and definitely the number of people coming in to access services has increased over the years,” she said.
This can be attributed both to the increase in the number of post-secondary students, and increased awareness of mental health conditions, she explained.
“A lot of people are coming with a lot of awareness and less sense of stigma… I think there’s a lot of talk about mental health issues now.”
One person keen to promote the talk about mental health issues is Huzaifa Saeed, Vice President of Education for the MSU.
“Mental health was something that when I came to McMaster, in 2008, wasn’t a big deal on campus. But in the last year or two… things have ramped up a bit.”
As MSU External Affairs Commissioner last year, Saeed worked with other student leaders from the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) to write a paper on student health issues, with a focus on mental health.
This project, combined with his experience as a Welcome Week rep, inspired his “pink elephant in the room” campaign, which offered mental health training to all 1100 of this year’s reps. The response, he says, has been very positive.
“I’ve done a lot of campaigns for the MSU, and I don’t think any particular one of them has been this successful.”
The goal of the initiative is to make Mac a “stigma-free campus,” and to increase awareness of the much-needed support the university offers to its students.
And students need that kind of support more and more, as it’s not always something that they find on their own.
“People are losing the small school connection,” he said of McMaster. “If you’re sitting in a 600-person, MDCL 1305 lecture, you’re not really going to have anyone to lean on if you run into problems.”
Reports have shown that students are generally more stressed and more prone to mental health issues than before. According to the campaign’s website, about 5700 of McMaster’s undergraduate and graduate students will have “a mental health concern.”
A National College Health Assessment done at McMaster in 2009 reported that half of students surveyed “felt overwhelming anxiety,” while 56 percent “felt things were hopeless.”
But although mental health issues may present themselves to a significant portion of students, only about ten percent of the student body takes advantage of the Student Wellness Centre’s counseling services, Dr. Nifakis says.
With nine full-time counselors during the academic year, the Wellness Centre is comfortable with its availability of service.
“There is sometimes a wait time,” Dr. Nifakis said, noting that most complaints come when students may have to wait a few weeks for follow-up appointments. But this wouldn’t necessarily be remedied by increasing the number of counselors.
“I think that you could increase your number of counselors to the nth degree and you would still not meet the demand in the way people sometimes come to expect counseling to be.”
The Student Wellness Centre and the MSU have teamed up to continue promoting the “pink elephant in the room” campaign and further increase awareness about available services for students.
“We’re not counselors,” Saeed said of the MSU, “but what we can do is let people know that these [counselors at the Student Wellness Centre] exist.”
Both organizations will benefit from this partnership as they plan to offer recommendations to the university in a Mental Health Strategy Document later this year.