Mental health plays a huge role in the social experience, personal development, academic success, and overall well-being of every university student. For that reason, I want to talk about mental health on college campuses, and I want to talk about my experience being a university student with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is actually my second attempt writing this piece because the first time I tried, I wrote an incredibly impersonal overly wordy essay with APA cited facts about college mental health. Part of the reason behind that is that I’m a science student and it gets a little drilled into you. The other reason is that sitting down at my computer to write about mental health, knowing that someone might read it, is terrifying. One of the most important things to know is if you’re afraid to talk about mental health or mental illness, you’re not alone because writing this is raising my blood pressure. I am not a big fan of talking about my struggles with anyone, least of all strangers on the internet. However, the more time I spent at university, the more I realized how important it is that we do talk about mental health especially given that anxiety and depression rates among college students have greatly increased.
I have experienced firsthand the challenges of declining mental health in university. It takes a toll on your grades, your relationships and your quality of life. It took me a long time to find the resources on my campus and ask for help. Over the years, I became more comfortable with my reality and more comfortable with seeking out campus resources. I had to accept the fact that I needed to register with SAS because if I had a panic attack during an exam I needed to have the time to recover from that and still be able to complete my exam.
I have also observed the toll it takes on friends when an individual suffering from mental illness does not have access to or is unwilling to use available resources. As university students we are often very busy, sleep deprived and stressed individuals and we are by no means mental health professionals. I know that we all care deeply for our friends but the emotional and psychological toll it takes to provide professional level support for someone you care about is not something that the average university student is equipped to handle. I don’t know the best thing to say when someone I care for tells me that they are having suicidal thoughts. This causes concern for the person I care for but it also gives me a great deal of panic, and anxiety and makes it very difficult to go about day to day life.
It is very fortunate that McMaster has mental health resources on campus, available to students who are struggling. However, according to a 2013 National College Health Assessment, a third of all college students experienced depression that inhibited their ability to function. As well, approximately half of the students experienced extreme anxiety. McMaster University had 26,780 undergraduate students in the 2016-2017 academic year. Given that we are just beginning to have more open conversations about mental health and develop the much-needed student resources, there are currently not support systems in place to serve all the undergrads who are struggling with their mental health. Most recently I have had to wait a week to have a consultation appointment. When having an anxiety attack makes me wonder how I will get to the end of my day, it is discouraging to know that I won’t be able to talk to someone for three weeks. Unfortunately, because mental health is invisible, less understood, and carries a stigma, we don’t take mental health seriously enough. Since then I have had access to a counsellor once every 3 to 4 weeks. Today, I arrived at my appointment to find a note on the door, saying the counsellor had to leave unexpectedly. This is an unfortunate reality at all universities, which mirrors the lack of mental health resources for the general public in Canada and the United States. There are far more students who need support than there are professionals to provide it. While this is a challenging problem, the consequences are dire, and it needs to be recognized.
“I felt like something was broken inside of me that I needed to hide from the world”
For the thousands of students who are suffering from mental health issues in silence, and for the people who love them and are not equipped with the means to help them, we need to raise awareness and have a more open dialogue about mental health. If all students currently can’t access timely, one-on-one resources, then we need to at least reduce the level of isolation associated with mental illness. If I’m afraid to write these words and put them out into the world, how can we begin to be open about mental health? How can we expect people to seek out treatment when they feel like they have something to be ashamed of and something to hide? It would have been nice to know that a huge number of university students experience anxiety and depression, instead, I felt like something was broken inside of me that I needed to hide from the world. Knowing that you are not alone makes a difference, and students should be encouraged to get together and discuss these issues so that they can stop hiding in the dark. This will help people to find the courage and the support they need to ask for help. As more students seek the help they need, the universities will be more aware, and hopefully, will want to look for solutions, so that students can get appropriate professional help. In the meantime, we can be part of the dialogue to helps to end the stigma and brings people together for better understanding.