The growing number of students seeking help with mental-health issues is changing the face of frosh week.
The first week of university was once consumed largely by school spirit and partying, but with campus counselling services encountering many more students who report severe stress, loneliness and depression, orientation organizers across the country are seizing the chance to put a strong focus on mental wellness.
Between the barbecues and pep rallies, students at many schools are being taken on tours of on-campus support centres by peer mentors, who in turn have more training in how to watch for early signs of mental distress and intervene before it turns serious.
While alcohol use is still a primary concern on most campuses – a 19-year-old Acadia University student died this week, reportedly after a night of heavy drinking that left him with alcohol poisoning – suicide is a leading cause of student deaths. When the University of Alberta Students' Union surveyed 1,600 students last spring, 52 per cent said they had felt "overwhelming anxiety" and 7 per cent admitted to seriously considering suicide.
"There were some pretty alarming facts that we didn't expect but I think definitely need to be addressed," said Colten Yamagishi, the union's vice-president, student life.
The U of A now runs a tour of its mental-health services and mandatory sessions such as an orientation panel, where older students discuss their common struggles and point the way to on-campus supports.
At the University of Western Ontario, more than 2,000 freshmen and their frosh leaders crowded around an outdoor stage on Wednesday evening for the One Love Rally – a show focused on mental wellness, diversity and sexual health. Messages about on-campus support systems were sent out by speakers and musical performers such as Steven Page, former front man of the Barenaked Ladies, who has battled addiction.
"Sometimes inside you're not keeping it all together. The best thing you can do is talk to somebody – it could be a therapist, it could be a helpline," Mr. Page told the crowd between songs. "Those are the things that save lives."
The rally was tied to a new program that trained Western's orientation leaders to watch students for indications that they may be struggling, in the hope they might open up to a peer they have come to trust. First-year student Connor Newmann, 18, suspects those who attended the rally with him will be more likely to watch out for their friends' health as well.
"Most people our age, I'd imagine, wouldn't think [mental health] would be a problem. But as this [rally] brings to our attention, it happens more than you'd think," Mr. Newmann said. "You see it on the news and you never think it'll happen to someone close to you."
Ryerson University's student leaders launched a new initiative, the All About You fair, which circulated more than 500 new arrivals through 20 stations featuring interactive games promoting health and self-awareness.
And at Queen's University – a school still reeling after six of its students died in little more than a year, one during orientation week – efforts to bolster mental health have been "scaled up," said principal Daniel Woolf. An opening-night orientation rally warned students to expect more stress, residence rooms have telephone numbers to call for help tacked to bulletin boards, and for the first time the popular and well-attended Tour the Town event takes students into the Peer Support Centre.
Initiatives like these help make today's orientation at Queen's very different from what was on offer a decade ago, when it "was a lot more chaotic, and a hazing initiative," said Kieran Slobodin, a former frosh leader who is now vice-president, university affairs, at the school's Alma Mater Society.
"I think it's putting things into perspective for [new students], because they're realizing that it's not all about having fun and doing whatever they want to," Western orientation leader Natalie Trabucco said at the One Love Rally.\
BY THE NUMBERS
Even though mental-health awareness is spreading, students and administrators are still often surprised by statistics showing the prevalence of student mental-health issues at colleges and universities. The findings do not account for students who do not report problems they experience.
70 Percentage of mental illnesses that have their onset during childhood or adolescence
24 Percentage of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds accounted for by suicide
15 Percentage of students surveyed at six Ontario universities who have been treated by a professional for mental-health problems
25 Percentage of young people in Canada with mental-health problems who receive professional help
7 Percentage of students surveyed at the University of Alberta who had seriously considered suicide
87 Percentage of students surveyed at the U of A who felt overwhelmed by the things they need to accomplish
52 Percentage of students surveyed at the U of A who felt overwhelming anxiety
Sources: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canadian Mental Health Association, Canadian Association of College and University Student Services, University of Alberta Spring Survey, The Jack Project