by Amanda-Jean Hennick

University is stressful for all of us; in every student’s life there has been, or will come a time, when they are stressed about some aspect of their school work. Even the most “well-adjusted” individuals often fall into this habit, but for those of us who aren’t so well adjusted, it’s a bit of a different story.

As a student who suffers first hand from mental illness, I know what the stress of university can do, how it can affect what underlying problems are already there, and how it can inflate these issues and make them seem completely unmanageable. In his 2008 paper, “How Big a Problem is Anxiety?”, Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D. claimed that “[t]he average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s”. Add to this the pressures of tuition, increased work loads, and possibly working a part- or full-time job on the side, it is no wonder that when it comes to mental illness, university students are at a heightened risk.

No one can deny that university is stressful on one level or another and some are able to handle it better than others, but for those who can’t, stress is a major factor in mental illness and disorders. Tobias Esch, M.D. said that “[s]tress, in general, has been demonstrated to be part of mechanisms related to anxiety, and chronic stress, involving chronic sympathetic activation, has specifically been linked to the onset of anxiety and depression. In particular, stress may actually mediate, promote, or even cause mental disorders like depression.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), one-fifth of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Of Canadian youth, one-tenth to one-fifth are affected by a mental illness or mental health disorder, so it is not surprising that at a university of about thirty thousand students, you could find some of that fifth.

When asked about university life in relation to stress, one Waterloo student said, “As someone who suffers from stress-triggered anxiety, depression, and related sleep disorders, university is a huge struggle. I struggle every day not to break down in anxiety over the amount of work and stress university creates,” and when asked if and how UW Accessibility was able to help, they responded “Accessibility is really good for those with physical disabilities, or people with anxiety where they need extra time or a quieter environment to take exams. But for people like me with stress-related heightened anxiety, there’s really not much they can do. They’ve been helpful with fixing conflicts for me, but as for the more regularities of my anxiety the only thing
I could do, would be to take less courses and see if that works.” Strides have been made to accommodate people with disabilities, but this help is not reaching everyone effectively, and many subtler difficulties are in need of better recognition.

A former Waterloo student, when asked about how the stress of university affected their many mental disorders (depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, and anxiety) they answered “It simply made all of them exponentially worse. I stopped functioning properly and I stopped being me.” Not only did their symptoms get worse, but they were worsened again when introduced to anti-psychotics. Instead of helping, the medication actually deteriorated their well-being. “I hated the meds; they screwed with me and caused things like insomnia and a stutter. I would have preferred therapy.” When asked how the medication made them feel specifically, they had this to say: “Numb. I had shakes, stuttering, lack of sleep, I felt empty, sometimes angry.” This is of course, not to say that medication never works; according to Dr. Tim Kenny, every 8 out of 10 patients benefit from anti-psychotics.

Unfortunately, the students mentioned above are not the only ones to have a disdain for medication. Abby Andrews, a student from Queen’s University had this to say: “A student who reaches out for help and is instead given a rushed prescription can be turned off from seeking help. That’s what happened to me. I’ve been on anti-depressants for three years, and the doctor who prescribed them to me has never followed up. I now rely on medicine to balance the level of serotonin in my brain, and I’m skeptical as to whether I need it. A bottle of pills isn’t personal support. That day, the doctor handed me a list of therapists in the city that would be able to help me. I felt that I was being passed off to someone else because the school couldn’t deal with me. I had been outsourced.”

The mental health of students is not going unnoticed. In fact, the Canadian Federation of Students in Nova Scotia (CFSNS) launched a campaign meant to raise awareness about student mental health on campus, and to pressure post-secondary schools and the provincial government to invest more towards student mental health. Unfortunately, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Wellness, there are no plans to increase funding for mental health at this time. Thankfully, although it seems that our schools will not yet be increasing funds, the University of Waterloo Mental Health Services offer a wide variety of help to aid people with anxiety, depression, problems sleeping, OCD, and other mental illnesses that are often triggered by stress. Services include counselling, crisis intervention, psychodiagnosis, psychotherapy, educational support and more. The University also offers more unconventional ways of managing stress such as petting puppies. In April of last year, students were able to go to the REC room in the Renison University College and pet puppies to relieve stress, which is one therapy I personally hope they continue.

As someone who understands the stress of university, along with the struggles of mental illness, I reach out to all those who suffer in silence. Although mental illness is sometimes still seen
as taboo, it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is as real and as difficult as many physical illnesses and disorders and if it is interfering with your everyday life, I urge you to seek out the help that you need. If there is one thing I have learned in my short time here at UW, it is that no matter what, no matter how it seems, you are not alone.

[Editor’s note: Have you expe-
rienced problems with stress
or mental health problems at
UW? Let us know about your
experiences. Anonymity will
be preserved as desired.