Across Canada, counselling and support services at colleges and universities have experienced an alarming influx of students asking for help with problems ranging from anxiety and sadness to serious mental illnesses – especially at the end of term. It's a phenomenon that has strained schools' resources and spurred the creation of new programs designed to reach students early.
DavidGoldbloom, chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada and a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, tried to diagnose the issue.
What makes university students so vulnerable to mental illness?
They are young people in the characteristic age of onset for a number of mental illnesses including depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance abuse. The second thing is that it is, for many of them, a significant life transition away from home and familiar environments and supports. And they are moving toward a new apex in terms of their peers. I used to joke that when I enrolled in undergraduate studies at age 17, in a class of 1,200 there were 1,199 other yearbook editors, and suddenly that feeling of being special, you were pushed to the bottom and working your way up again.
Do we have a generation of students that is more anxious or less resilient?
It's an important question, and one to which I don't know the answer. The danger is an impressionistic rather than a data-based response. We certainly could anticipate very easily that more open discussion about mental health and mental illness is going to result in more people seeking help. But there's no question, I think, that the competition has gotten more intense, that the bar continuously gets set higher. So you've got to accomplish more. Do I think that higher bar creates more mental illness? I don't think so. (More) stress, yes. And look, there is data coming out from the United States that suggested an additional 4,500 suicides are associated with – I think it's a stretch to say attributable to – the impact of the (recent) recession. But let's remember that there are many people who have secure employment who will also experience mental illness, that it's not exclusively a function of adverse circumstances. Otherwise it triggers the "what have you got to be depressed about?" response.
What do we know about the role parents play?
Parents play a critical role in preparing their kids for moving beyond the nest. The popular concerns that have emerged over the last 10 years have been about the "helicopter parents," who are monitoring – "We have a lot of homework," as opposed to the kid having homework – and what's called the "snowplow parents," who are trying to remove all obstacles in their children's paths. This is normally a time when young people develop a sense of autonomy, confidence in their own abilities to cope, and also to separate from family to some degree. So unwittingly, and for the best intentions, it's possible that those adaptive and coping skills in a young person can be compromised by the hyper-monitoring.
Are there are any more helicopter and snowplow parents than there used to be?
I think so. There's no question about it. Technology has aided and abetted that process. Writing a letter home once a week, as my generation often did when we'd left home for university, has been replaced by Skyping, texting, e-mailing. When I was in college, I was sending home highly filtered, occasional and edited accounts of what I was actually doing, keeping my parents informed but on a need-to-know basis, and leaving out most of the fun stuff.