by Catherine Jenkins
Student mental health is deteriorating according to studies of Canadian students by the American College Health Association in 2013, 2016 and 2019, as well as studies by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), supported by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) from 2018 to 2020. Analyzing data collected from Canadian post-secondary students indicates that although levels of severe, chronic mental health disorders that commonly present in early adulthood (e.g., schizophrenia) have seen only slight increases over this time, alarming increases have occurred in diagnoses for anxiety and depression, with nearly twice the prevalence among female students (Linden, Boyes & Stuart, 2021). Not surprisingly, the deterioration in student mental health negatively impacts academic performance. The following graph, Figure 1: Student Mental Health, shows this rapid decline over the last decade or so.
The trends apparent in Figure 1 are alarming, with rates of depression and anxiety consistently increasing over time. While some might dismiss the self-reported findings, it’s harder to ignore the doubling and tripling of professional diagnoses. Although the increase in students finding it difficult to handle their academics is only slight, at close to 60%, it is also concerning.
Annabelle Torsein, Clinical Psychologist Resident, PhD Candidate
Social isolation and lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic have only made matters worse. According to a 2021 Canadian study, during the pandemic students with pre-existing mental health concerns experienced little change in their status; some even improved. Having a diagnosis also means learning what supports and resources are available. The alarming finding is that students who did not have identified mental health concerns pre-pandemic exhibited increasing psychological distress during the pandemic (Hamza, et. al, 2021).
Data from Statistics Canada regarding depression and anxiety in adults in the general population between 2000 and 2016 also reveals a slight upward trend, but the overall numbers are far lower than those experienced by students. Diagnosed major depressive disorders were relatively stable over these sixteen years within the Canadian population at 5.4% among employed individuals, 11.7% among the unemployed, and 9.8% for those not in the workforce. Individuals reporting both depression and anxiety was only 1.2% among employed individuals, 3% among the unemployed, and 4.1% for those not in the workforce (Dobson, Vigo, Mustard & Smith, 2020).
Compare these rates to the 2019 rates above with 23.7% of students being treated or diagnosed with anxiety, 19.1% with depression, and 15.8% experiencing both. Rates of diagnosed student mental health issues are many times higher than those of the general population. Then consider that the self-reported student findings are even higher than the diagnosed findings. Given that we are preparing students to enter society and the workforce, ensuring their mental health now will help them later. How can instructors and academic institutions better support students?