Module 1: Overview of Mental Health

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University can be an exciting time full of new experiences, friends, and knowledge for students. It is also a period of major transition for students as they are launched from their families, leaving home and living on their own, for the first time for post-secondary school. This all happens as they make the transition from life at home (teenage years) to being on their own and facing the pressures of school and/or work, while entering into the next life cycle phase of young adulthood and learning what it means to live more independently by supporting themselves. Not surprisingly, University life for a student can be a demanding experience, filled with pressure to integrate, adapt, adjust, cope, and excel towards earning a University degree.

Transitions can be wonderful experiences but they can also bring on unwanted feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress. Transitions, at this young age, can also be a time when the risk of early onset of any number of underlying mental health issues develops and/or surfaces, for some students. And complied to mental health concerns, if a student arrives on campus with poor coping skills then they may not know how to cope with the stress attached and quickly slip into behaviours that are of concern. It then becomes imperative that people, who work with students like Faculty and Staff, become aware of signs to watch out for.

This short video below, portrays a study looking at mental health of 1st year business students at SMU 

In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness, with youth, aged 15 - 24 being the most likely group to suffer the effects of a mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide. Many Universities are starting to see a growing number of students who enter University with a pre-existing diagnosed mental illness, however; many students continue to discover their mental illness in their first years at school. Depression and anxiety are two of the more common mental health issues showing up in counselling centres across the country and Saint Mary's is no exception. Faculty and Staff can play an instrumental role in helping students seek assistance. The sooner a student is assessed and we understand what is happening with them, the sooner a treatment plan can be developed based on the client's needs and identified goals for therapy. Many students who do not seek help and perform poorly academically, might also be struggling with a mental health issue.

Mental health, just like physical health, requires finding a balance in different aspects of life. For a positive and healthy mental health, this would mean finding a balance between social, physical, financial, career, spiritual, and psychological life. The reality is that most adults struggle day to day to find this balance. This balance is a learned and mindful process with much inner awareness and as such, students do not simply arrive at University with the understanding of how to juggle all the challenges and expectations that University has to offer. Thoughts of identity, independence, finance, and employment are constantly on students' minds, and can result in emotional distress for many of them. Augmented with this, poor academic performance, a relationship ending, and/or family concerns might translate into seeing a downward spiral of a students' struggle and may take many negative forms. Other students may begin to face more severe and cumulative mental health problems and deal with them by self-medicating, believing that this is helping them cope with their feelings, for example, they may use substances - drugs or alcohol, or go on extreme shopping or eating binges to self-sooth.

Most of us have heard the terms mental illness, mental disorder, or psychiatric condition. These terms are used to describe a wide range of various conditions but what they have in common is that they all affect a person's emotions, thoughts, and behaviours - how they see themselves, how they see the world around them, and how they interact in and interpret that world. The key difference from "having a bad day or week" is both the duration and magnitude of the impacts on your life and how the individual person is interpreting events. There are many different kinds of mental disorders. (Canadian Mental Health Association - this info was partly adapted from a factsheet developed in 2010 by CMHA BC Division on behalf of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information and

Mental illness can happen to anyone. It is not a matter of "snapping out of it", "thinking happy thoughts" or "staying active". Think how you would feel if you suffered from anxiety, which stopped you from attending large classes and someone said to you "snap out of it".  Not only does this comment show disrespect for your feelings but it does not encourage understanding, concern, and/or a referral to someone who can help. Everyone has responsibility for maintaining a positive and healthy mental health and as a result, everyone can face some form of mental distress, at some point in their lives, brought on by various external or internal perceived and/or real stressors. Mental illness picks anyone, no matter what his or her background, education, culture, gender, or position in society. Understanding this is key to providing students with a non-judgemental response. This could be me, how would I want someone to treat me. Keeping this in mind is crucial for respecting and supporting the mental health of other individuals. It is not always easy for students to make the connection between how they are feeling and a possible mental illness. Having Faculty and/or Staff who are willing to talk to them about their performance in class, changes in their behaviour, or concerns they may be having in a non-judgemental way is the bridge a student may need to find out how to get support for a mental illness or poor coping skills.

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A student who is diagnosed with a mental illness is totally capable of functioning and succeeding at University. In fact, a student with a mental illness may have such positive coping skills that they may perform academically as well as or even better than other students who do not have this challenge. Similarly, a student without a mental illness could still suffer from poor mental health and may need assistance and support to improve their mental health. We all need to take care of our mental health each and every day. Students are just beginning to learn this when they arrive on campus. Faculty and Staff can do a lot to promote positive coping skills, minimize negative ones, and refer them to professionals on campus.

The Counselling Centre works day to day with students and mental illness. These are free resources, on site to support our students in succeeding. Part of normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental health is to let students know that these professionals work with hundreds of students a year and want to help. As a Faculty or Staff member, please drop by one of our Open Houses or pop in and see The Counselling Centre. If you can describe to a student where we are, who we are, and what we do as if it were any other service on campus, then you are breaking down the barriers to seeking treatment, normalizing, and most importantly, helping our students become and stay well.

Stigma and lack of support are counterproductive to individuals living with a mental illness and can keep them from seeking the help they need.  We all play an important role in reducing the stigma associated with mental health and mental illness. Take up the challenge and be a support person, practice positive mental health, and normalize seeking help.


  • Youth aged 15-24 are the most likely group to suffer the effects of a mental illness, substance abuse and suicide
  • Periods of transition (such as entering or leaving university), can bring on unwanted feelings of anxiety, depression and stress
  • Mental illness can happen to anyone
  • A mental illness/mental disorder/ psychiatric condition describes a wide range of conditions that affects a person’s emotions thoughts and behaviours
  • Students diagnosed with a mental illness are just as capable as any student to succeed at university with the right coping strategies.  Similarly, students without a mental illness can still suffer from poor mental health and may need assistance and support to improve their mental health
  • Mental health, just like physical health, requires finding a balance in different aspects of life


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