The intersection of poverty and mental illness on campus

Poor university students. They’re so hard done by, getting handouts from their parents, spending their OSAP money on beer, and —gasp!— having responsibilities in a sheltered version of the “real” working world. Poor, poor students!

Sound familiar? I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard some variation of those statements at nearly every family gathering I’ve attended. However, it appears that the plight of the university student isn’t as one-dimensional as your racist uncle made it out to be.

It’s been known for some time now that mental illness is rampant on Canada’s university campuses, with rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

What doesn’t seem to get as much coverage is that, according to a November 2016 report from the Meal Exchange, 39 per cent of Canadian students reported living with food insecurity. Notably, African-Canadian students reported food insecurity at a rate of 75 per cent, while 56 per cent of Aboriginal students said they had experienced food insecurity while in school.

To Kathryn LeBlanc, an event supervisor at the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa’s Food Bank, low wages are a major root cause of poverty among students.

“Even if you are working, chances are you aren’t making very much money, and on top of that job security is huge,” said LeBlanc. “Lots and lots of folks aren’t even able to know when their next pay cheque is going to come. Think of all the unpaid internships. Think about the amount of labour students are expected to put in, extra-curriculars on top of that.”

LeBlanc’s statement is echoed by Katherine Marshall’s 2010 report for Statistics Canada on Employment Patterns of Post-secondary Students, which shows that over half of students are employed while completing their post-secondary education—up from only one-quarter between 1970 and 1990.

In addition, the report shows that students earned, on average, between $6,000 and $7,000 during the school year—well below the poverty line. Coupled with tuition outpacing the rate of average incomes and inflation, Canadian students are commonly finding themselves in a financial bind.

There are always student loans, but often for graduate students these loans cap out beneath the cost of their tuition, not to mention the hoops some students have to jump through to get any substantial funding due to the parental income requirement. Plus, research by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance shows that only half of undergraduates report receiving financial assistance from their parents. This means that those who aren’t supported by their higher income families are left without financial help.

But the issues of student poverty and mental illness don’t exist in a vacuum—20 per cent of the students surveyed in the 2016 Meal Exchange report indicated that food insecurity had an impact on their mental health.

According to Tim Aubry, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology, people living in poverty are definitively at a higher risk for mental illness, and many factors are at play when we analyze the relationship between these circumstances.

In his mind, “The adequacy of their housing, the safety in the kind of neighbourhood they live in, the resources they have to engage in leisure activities, access to extended health care, or the basic health care that most Canadians have,” are just some of the reasons that those living in poverty are predisposed to mental illness. He also emphasized that certain populations in Canada are more affected than others, in particular Indigenous communities, the homeless population, and rural residents.

LeBlanc noted that the stress of living in poverty isn’t the only factor that can contribute to mental illness, but the stigma associated with reaching out to support facilities such as a food bank.

“There are so many people that could benefit from a student food bank but they don’t, because they feel shame, or they feel stress, or they feel stigma about the idea of visiting a food bank,” she said.

“Student loans, and income insecurity, and all of these things are put into the back rooms and you don’t talk about them, and we just internalize the shame.”

Perhaps one of the biggest intersections of mental illness and poverty happens when someone struggling with a disorder seeks help. According to the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, one 50-minute session with a counsellor or psychotherapist can cost anywhere between $60 and $150. The U of O does offer counselling and therapy services at reduced rate, however it does have its drawbacks with wait times and lack of free counselling for longer-term problems.

This relationship between poverty and mental illness is what Aubry calls a “vicious cycle,” and he thinks one way out could be the creation of rent subsidies to supplement low-income earners—a mechanism which he says has recorded a near 80 per cent success rate in moving people out of homelessness.

Aubry also notes that basic income will soon be entering a pilot phase in Ontario, the results of which could have a positive impact on low-income earners on campus and beyond.

LeBlanc thinks an effective solution would be more lobbying to reform the basic labour laws that have the strongest impact on millennials in “precarious” work positions.

But until these long-term changes can come into effect, it seems that we should push just as hard for discussion around student poverty as we do with mental illness—because the stigma and secrecy surrounding both topics are inextricably linked. 

“You might think that you know someone really well, but you actually have no idea if their employer is cutting their hours. You don’t know if their provincial government is screwing with their loans, you don’t know who is affected, and you don’t know how much someone is affected,” said LeBlanc.

“People don’t know how big of a problem it is, because everyone is suffering in silence.”