Health professionals are calling for government action after a new study found a majority of Ontario university students feel debilitating levels of anxiety and depression, with some contemplating suicide.
The results, published by the Ontario University and College Health Association (OUCHA) last week, surveyed more than 25,000 Ontario students who were enrolled in post-secondary studies through spring 2016. The study questioned participants about everything from substance use to sex—overall mood to performance in class.
Despite over 80 percent of the students rating their overall health as "good, very good or excellent," the actual answers they gave regarding their mental health paint a different picture. The results, which were self-reported, show that 65 percent of the students felt "overwhelming anxiety" in the last 12 months, and 46 percent described a level of depression that made it "difficult to function."
Among all students, 11.5 percent reported both depression and anxiety, while 13.7 percent had "seriously considered" committing suicide. More startlingly, while only 2.7 percent actually reported attempting suicide in the last 12 months, 9 percent of the total surveyed group reported attempting suicide at least once in their life.
These stats are up from the last report in 2013, in which only 58 percent of students reported the same feelings of anxiety, 40 percent the same feelings of depression, and 11 percent had seriously considered suicide.
"We're seeing a very concerning increase in students who are reporting an increase in mental distress," Meg Houghton, president of the OUCHA, told VICE Monday. "It's sobering, but very worrying."
Houghton says that the increase in students identifying with mental health issues is likely indicative of a number of modern stressors—student debt, the internet, lack of job prospects (among a laundry list of other possibilities)—emphasizes that it's also a marker of the progress that's been made in mental health education and reducing the stigma around conditions such as depression.
Still, she argues that there is a negative sentiment from much of society that young people are being "too whiny" or are rationalizing laziness with mental health conditions. That stigma, Houghton says, is one of the main limiting factors on getting students help quickly—one that specifically affects students who are low-income, marginalized, or rely on financial aid (the majority of all students, according to OSAP).
"I think there is a concerning dismissal of this issue around the student population that they should somehow, you know, buck up, or manage stress, or that they don't belong in post-secondary. That is totally wrong and harmful to the big picture."
According to Houghton, the lack of comprehensive strategy on addressing mental health across university and college campuses makes the process of getting help a nightmare, but says it's counterproductive to put up a monetary figure for governments to contribute because it can be limiting the scope of what's possible.
"If we were looking for a student population with zero percent rates of [anxiety], or zero percent reports of depression and suicide, what would it take us to get there? That's really how we want to start this conversation," she said.
"We want to ensure that students have access to intervention and early support. That's the good side of this story, we know that getting to this problem when people are still young can help a lot."
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