Illustration: Rame Abdulkader.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

There’s no denying that mental health and mental illness are becoming increasingly pervasive issues on post-secondary campuses across Canada. As of 2016, an unprecedented one in five Canadian post-secondary students were dealing with mental illness, according to the National College Health Assessment, while 13 per cent of students seriously contemplated suicide, both increases of about four per cent from 2013. To learn about some of the ways students can maintain good mental health and seek help and support when needed, the Fulcrum spoke with Yena Bi, a psychotherapist with the Student Academic Success Centre (SASS).

The Fulcrum: Yena, what are some common mental health concerns you see on campus?

Bi: We see a lot of struggles with anxiety, depression and self-esteem, especially among first-year students. There’s a big transition from high school to university, and you can’t expect what’s really coming until you’re here. For some people, this is their first time leaving home and they might be leaving their support networks. There’s a lot of adjustments during first-year that can be quite challenging.

F: What advice would you give to students dealing with some of these common issues?

B: All mental health issues are unique to a person, so we typically try to create individualized plans. But in general, when it comes to anxiety we tend to tell our students to maintain a good balance in the different areas of their life, from academics to health, relationships and passions. You want to make sure that you are attending to them because if any area that’s important to you starts to deteriorate, it can really impact your levels of anxiety and vice-versa.

We know depression tends to exile people. You tend to shut yourself away,  stay at home, skip classes, stop seeing friends, so a really important part is to stay active in those areas physically and mentally. The more depressed you are the less likely you are to be engaged, which leads to more depression, so it’s sort of a vicious cycle and to get out of it we do need to start getting back in touch with society, with whatever’s important to us.

Self-esteem is huge. It can be really helpful to talk in a group, to have peers validate you, because it’s a very difficult thing to talk about. There’s a lot of people that struggle with that feeling of not being good enough in private. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not just you, it’s universal. Once people understand that I think it gets a lot easier to deal with. It’s very human to feel inadequate and unworthy at one point or another and there’s nothing wrong with that.

F: Walk us through some of the resources available on campus?

B: SASS offers a few different types of counselling: one-on-one, group therapy, workshop-based therapy, and we’re getting ready to launch online therapy. Health Services also offers therapy and counselling. Faculties have their own mentoring centres as well, and the Pride Centre is great for LGBTQ+ support.

F: What does a first session with a counsellor typically look like?

B: The first session is mostly spent on getting to know the student. We’ll never push them past where they’re comfortable, we give them the space to come to us and talk about what brings them here and slowly get into that topic. We talk about confidentiality, what counselling looks like, what it’s about and we really do our best to normalize the experience, to give them an idea of what to expect, how long this will last and just how often this happens.

F: What about off-campus?

B: There are a ton of off-campus resources, so I’ll touch on a few here. There are eight free walk-in counselling clinics in Ottawa and community health centres throughout the city are great resources as well. Helplines can be an important tool too such as Good2Talk, a 24/7 free counselling service for post-secondary students over the phone.

F: Why are we seeing an increasing prevalence of mental illness on campuses across Canada?

B: I don’t necessarily think that there are more mental health problems now compared to 30 years ago, but I think people are more willing to seek help and it’s more acceptable to seek help. We’re seeing much more demand and conversation around mental health, it’s become more in the spotlight. The kind of pressure on students nowadays is a bit different than before. With social media, everything is very exposed and the pressure to be perfect is constant. You are constantly being compared to other people’s best.

F: In general, what can students do to maintain good mental health?

B: Be mindful about where you’re at in your life, how you feel, so that you’re aware when things are not right. Check in with yourself every once and awhile. Your body’s very intelligent, it can tell you if something is off. Looking after your body is incredibly important. Do a little reflection and make sure you are spending time once and awhile doing what is really important to you. Staying engaged with the areas of life you really care about is really important for mental health. Having strong relationships is one of the strongest indicators of happiness and physical health.

F: What can people do to help combat the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness?

B: Speak up about your mental health. I think you’ll find not only will (it) be accepted but you’ll be a powerful example to the people around you that it’s okay and important to talk about these things.

F: If a student is diagnosed with a mental illness, what’s next?

B: I would really recommend speaking to a professional about it. There are many, many modalities of therapy and treatment out there and it isn’t one size fits all, so I really encourage students to explore their options. People find a combination that really works for them with a little bit of patience and time.

F: If a student is in distress, what should they do?

B: It’s really important to reach out when you’re in distress and to calm yourself in the moment. It’s never a good idea to shove your mental health aside, not deal with it and stay isolated, that is for sure going to make the problem worse. In any way you can, reaching out to a friend, family member or a professional is really helpful. Also keep in mind that bad days or moments pass. You’re not going to be in a crisis forever and you will be okay.

This interview has been edited and condensed and does not constitute a diagnosis or counselling from a mental health professional. If you do need someone to speak to, book your first appointment with SASS counselling online or visit Health Services at 100 Marie Curie Private. A full list of mental health services in the city or on campus is available online.