What’s Behind the Rising Rates of Depression Among Canada’s College Students?

Concerns for the mental health of college students in North America have been steadily rising in recent years. Professionals report that anxiety, stress and depression have grown exponentially across campuses, and some colleges are finding themselves ill-equipped to help the rising number of students who struggle with mental illnesses.

A 2011 survey of 1,600 University of Alberta students reported that 50 percent had felt hopeless within a 12-month period. Over half felt overwhelming anxiety, and seven percent admitted to seriously considering suicide. Ryerson University’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling in Toronto saw a 200 percent increase in demand from students in crisis situations in the past year.

In the past two years, three Queen’s University students committed suicide. The events prompted Queen’s Principal Daniel Woolf to establish a commission on mental health to explore the source of anxiety, depression and stress among college students. Though the findings have yet to be released, a discussion paper was released earlier this summer. An article in Maclean’s cited the following factors:

  • stress of moving away from home;
  • academic demands;
  • social pressures;
  • parents’ expectations;
  • fear of graduating into a tough job market;
  • pre-existing diagnosis of mental illness;
  • difficulty coping with the rapidly changing world; and
  • black-and-white thinking regarding success and failure.

While some of these pressures are widely applicable to the college years in general, the two most generation-defining factors in Canada’s current mental health statistics are related to the poor economy and an intense reliance on technology.

A study conducted by MyBluePrint found that 81 percent of Canadian high school students feel moderate to high levels of stress when it comes to planning their post-secondary options. College tuitions are consistently rising each year, and as alternatives like government grants and summer work programs decline, many students are forced to take out student loans.

The average student who graduates from a Canadian university holds $27,000 in debt, and today’s students are under increased pressure to make sure their investments pay off. Facing the consequences of a debt-financed venture in an uncertain economic climate could make anyone feel a little anxious, but most students are mentally unprepared for the amount of stress the responsibility entails.

Coping with stress is a skill that develops over time, and technology can be a distraction from the type of deep contemplation and introspection that is necessary to mentally process large life problems. Technology can also serve as a distraction from misgivings and stress, allowing students to avoid a problem until it reaches its most demanding peak.

With information and communication at their fingertips, it’s easy for students to become apprehensive about unknown factors like doing well on a test or finding a job in a tough market. Distracted and apprehensive, students can struggle when confronted with harsh, real-world challenges.

In a time when young adults should be growing and reflecting, the margin for mistakes has grown smaller. Students know that the financial pressures of student loans or a subpar job (or both) could result in lifelong challenges, and the stresses of financial pressures can perpetuate depression and anxiety.

Financial stress normally includes the emotions of dread, anxiety and fear, and it can also lead to depreciation in self-value. Those who graduate into the recession could experience financial stress due to a high debt-to-asset ratio—not an unlikely scenario as Canadian students are currently $20 billion in debt.

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