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SFUO reports high levels of antidepressant use on campus

Andrew Ikeman | Fulcrum Staff

Illustration by Mathias MacPhee

The rate of antidepressant use on the University of Ottawa’s campus is rising, according to numbers released by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO).

The SFUO, who is in charge of the health plan at the U of O, reported that $119,049 in antidepressants were claimed through the health plan in 2011. This represents 12.7 per cent of all claims through the health plan for that year. That is up from the $84,300, or 12.2 per cent, in antidepressants claimed between September 2010 and June 2011—a $34,749 increase in claims, but only a 0.5 per cent increase. Antidepressants are the second most claimed drugs; the leading claim is oral contraceptives, coming in at $196,382 or 20.8 per cent of all drug claims.

Students are under a lot of stress in university, and that stress is not limited to the campus, said Zul Merali, president/CEO and scientific director of the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research (IMHR).

“University kids are not unique [in their use of antidepressants]; as a matter of fact, if anything, they are under a lot of pressure because they are leaving home for the first time, being a big fish in a small pond in high school, coming to be a small fish in a big pond, meeting many sharks on campus,” said Merali. “So there are a lot of pressures … it’s a vulnerable time … [Campuses] are environments where there’s a lot of vulnerability, so it makes sense to me that the numbers would be very high as well.”

Depression and mental health issues are something that Murray Sang, the director of the U of O’s Student Academic Success Service (SASS), sees as a huge problem on the campus, and on other campuses across Canada.

“Not just here, but [in] all the Ontario universities, there is a significant increase [in students seeking counselling],” said Sang. “We’re up about 15 to 20 per cent from year to year, and it’s a phenomenon that is certainly on the rise. The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities—which regulates all the Ontario universities—has had a number of meetings regarding student mental health. So it’s an issue.”

SASS facilitates mental health counselling, which allows students to drop in and undergo an evaluation, after which they can then be assisted through counselling or receive a referral to a therapist or doctor.

According to Anne-Marie Roy, vp communications of the SFUO, students at the U of O have been experiencing financial strain, which may be the reason behind the increase in antidepressant use.

“The SFUO believes that there is a correlation with financial stress,” said Roy. “Obviously students live with a number of stresses, and financial stress is not the only stress that students are going through. But more and more we are hearing that students are stressed about making ends meet [and] paying for rent.”

Roy pointed specifically to tuition costs as being an important factor in elevated rates of mental health issues on campus, a statement that raised questions among mental health professionals.

“The tuition issue could be a reason, but it’s not the sole reason; if it was that simple, we’d solve it,” said Sang. “If you are a high school kid, or a [Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel] (CÉGEP) kid, do you pay tuition? No, and are these kids not stressed? They are showing the same signs. If you talk to the high school counsellors, or the CÉGEP counsellors, they will tell you they are seeing the same kinds of issues. So finances play a role, but it’s not the major role … Even if you were to remove tuition, and make tuition free, I can guarantee you that you wouldn’t solve the mental health [issues]. You might solve some of them, but it would be an oversimplification to say that it would all disappear.”

Sang also said that the stressful nature of a university student’s life can be cause for concern.

“Don’t get me wrong; certainly if you can’t see where you’re going to make a living, how you’re going to make a living, you have to pay bills—that is stressful, no question,” said Sang. “But in terms of this age segment, this is often when these kinds of psychological and mental health issues present [themselves].”

The IMHR has recently moved toward setting up a new Depression Research Centre, which would be the first of its kind in Canada.

“Our flagship program is the first of its breed in Canada; what we are trying to create is a Depression Research Centre at the Royal [Ottawa Hospital],” said Merali. “What we want to do is set up a model, whereby when the patient walks through the door, we would treat that individual like one would be treated [for a physical illness]. For example, if you walked into the Heart Institute, all the necessary tests are taken care of, all the state-of-the-art technologies are applied to the selection of your treatment, and then personalized interventions are delivered. So that’s what we are marching towards; we are at the preliminary stages of that.”

SASS employs a number of alternative measures to assist students with mental health issues on campus, including the employment of two registered therapy dogs. The dogs, named Tundra and Rusty, are there to assist students in reducing stress. Tundra, who even tweets from @TundraDawg, was first introduced to campus last year, and has been a success, said Sang.

“Each time we set up the visit, we get 25–30 students who come in, play with the dogs, relax, just [get] a chance to unwind,” said Sang. “A lot of students, especially the ones in residence, we find, miss their pets. So we find it works. It’s not going to solve all the problems, but it is just something else [there to help].”