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Mental health discussion must address poverty

By Tina Shaygan, February 28 2017 —

Mental health on university campuses is a crisis. According to the 2016 National College Health Assessment, 13.1 per cent of the respondents from the  University of Calgary reported having seriously considered suicide at some point in the past year. Of the 1,004 U of C respondents, 18.9 per cent reported having been treated for or diagnosed with anxiety, and 15.4 per cent reported having been treated for or diagnosed with depression over the past year.

The U of C is not alone in these statistics. Throughout Canada, students have reported feeling hopeless, depressed and anxious. Various surveys show rising numbers of mental health illnesses throughout Canadian colleges and universities. While some of these increases are likely due to stigma reduction efforts and increased self-reporting,  approaches to addressing student mental health miss some fundamental points.

The U of C recently created the Campus Mental Health Strategy and invested in increasing mental health resources available to students. The Students’ Union has also started a variety of initiatives like De-Stress Packs and Pet Therapy to help alleviate stress during exam season. Other more concrete actions include expanding Wellness Centre hours and counselling services.

SU Wellness Centre has extended its hours and counselling services for students. // Photo by Jarrett Edmund.

SU Wellness Centre has extended its hours and counselling services for students. // Photo by Jarrett Edmund.

Next week, U of C will give an update on the Campus Mental Health Strategy and provide more information to students about the resources available to them on campus.

But beyond a discussion of the resources available, the Campus Mental Health Strategy  should recognize poverty as a significant variable impacting students’ mental health.

The U of C Campus Mental Health Strategy states that “research-intensive universities create cultures that demand high performance while promoting excellence and achievement, and also carry the risk of stress, stigma and challenges to mental health.”

While the stress and pressure of university is likely a cause of hopelessness and anxiety for students, we need to look beyond the walls of classrooms for help.

The average university student is likely financially supported by student loans or a minimum wage job, getting the absolute minimum amount of sleep needed to function and living off of ramen noodles. Universities must improve students’ overall quality of life to see improvements in students’ mental health. We can’t put students in a shitty basement suite, ask them to finance their ridiculously expensive education with no money left for any other hobbies or activities, feed them packaged food and wonder why there is an anxiety epidemic on campuses.

According to a Hungry for Knowledge survey, 40 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students are food “insecure,” with 20.1 per cent reporting that this affects their mental health. According to Statistics Canada, student’s wages can fall below the poverty line — but generally go back up again after graduation. Studies have shown a relationship between material standard of living and depression. And while mental health issues are complicated, poverty can further contribute to the rise of these problems.

Universities and organizations advocating for student mental health need to recognize student poverty as a problem that they can work to eliminate. I’m not suggesting that money is going to cure anxiety, but alleviating some financial stress, as well as providing students the chance to work less and have the option of engaging in anything not related to school or work could help.

The U of C Campus Mental Health Strategy currently recognizes that “the overall stress of being a university student, juggling multiple demands in association with an academic schedule, social life and extracurricular activities, puts students in a vulnerable position.”

But it is unclear what is being done to address students being put in this vulnerable position in the first place. And more importantly, there is a lack of recognition that student poverty can increase students’ vulnerability to begin with. In fact, if you search ‘poverty’ in the Campus Mental Health Strategy document, zero results come up.

While increased access to resources and stigma reduction are invaluable, we need to recognize what actually causes students anxiety and depression beyond course workload. Both mental illness and student finances have been identified as important issues individually. It’s time we link the two to address the campus mental illness epidemic. While university is hard work, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of your mental health.

Students facing poverty are much more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. We must recognize accessibility, food security and standard of living in order to effectively combat mental illness on campuses. The Campus Mental Health Strategy won’t be complete without it.

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