The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room
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Akihiko Tse News Editor
Graphic by Leigh Cavanaugh

According to the latest Toronto Vitals Signs report of 2012 that coincided with Mental Illness Awareness Week, 1,678,317 people, or 73.2 per cent of Torontonians, considered their mental health “good or excellent.”

The same report states, however, that 593,016, or 26.5 per cent of the population over the age of 15, consider most days as “quite a bit, or extremely stressful,” while 149,666 people, or 6.5 per cent, judged themselves to be in “fair or poor mental health.”

The outlook is particularly concerning to students, with one in four students expected to experience some form of a mental health problem during their studies. A report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists also indicates that students are more likely to encounter these problems than other young people.

To illustrate the impact at one academic institution, a 2009 survey of 950 undergraduate students at McMaster University showed that 35 per cent reported feeling depressed, with 88.8 per cent responding that they felt overwhelmed, followed by feeling exhausted (83 per cent), sad (66.1 per cent) and lonely (62.2 per cent). Among the 950 students, 6.5 per cent had contemplated suicide, and a little over one per cent, or 10 people, had attempted to commit suicide.

Behind the survey numbers, though, lies the reality that many who experience mental disorders feel that something is wrong, but find difficulty in identifying or recognizing it. Even when they have, there is a pervasive stigma attached to seeking and consulting help, Joan Lee-Ferdinand, a counsellor at Centennial College’s Career and Counselling Centre explains.

“Society attaches a stigma or they perceive society to attach a stigma to mental health problems so it makes them feel different and sometimes weak,” she said.

This can involve being perceived or treated differently, which has a large effect on whether people decide to look for help or not – one such study done by the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center showed that two-thirds of college students in need do not actively seek treatment worrying that it would be ineffective, or their situation is not severe enough.
“[Mental health issues] can happen to anybody,” Lee-Ferdinand said. “It’s not something that affects just one sector of society at any one time.”

While the causes of mental illnesses can be attributed to a complex interaction of genetic dispositions, social environment and individual experience, such as an exposure to overwhelming stress or grief, evidence to suggest that specific genes are linked to certain mental disorders have yet to be identified. The physical symptoms, however, can manifest by way of unstable sleeping patterns, unsettled eating patterns, and periods of delusions or hallucinations. The emotional and behavioral effects, such as not attending class, changes in academic performance, inability to cope and deal with daily problems, long-lasting sadness or irritability and disconnecting from family and friends – which Lee-Ferdinand says is an apparent sign that someone may be suffering from a mental illness – can create feelings of isolation and exclusion that can lend itself to stigmatization.

“Sometimes we just don’t know what our backgrounds are so when we start to feel this way, we don’t realize we’re not alone and there is somebody we can turn to talk to and see how to deal with it,” she said.

Since mental illnesses are usually diagnosed by a doctor or a psychiatrist there is a certain criteria of clinical symptoms that have to be met. They must extend over a period of time rather than being passing moments of “feeling blue.”

If students exhibit signs or symptoms of being depressed, Lee-Ferdinand says there are various coping skills to try and solve some of these stress factors, but having an understanding and awareness of the issue is essential to finding solutions and treatments for them.

“When people are depressed or feel overwhelmed and they feel that nobody is there listening to them or nobody is there for them, that can spiral into things like suicidal ideations and sometimes an actual suicide attempt,” Lee-Ferdinand said. “We don’t want to get there. We want to prevent students or anybody getting to that point of feeling so totally helpless that they feel that the only thing left for them is to die by suicide.”

The Centennial College Student Association Incorporated (CCSAI) intends to introduce yearly mental health awareness training for its staff members and board members that will be done by counsellors to raise awareness of the issue.

“This training will help staff to identify signs of problems or look for signs leading toward a problem,” said Jay Patel, President of the CCSAI, adding that while preparations remain at an early stage, this is an initiative the Student Association will continue to pursue.

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