Module 3: Mental Illness on University Campuses


University students, like all of us, can be affected by a variety of mental illnesses, though the following are more common for the traditional aged student:

  •           anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, and psychosis

At Saint Mary’s, problems related to self-harm, abuse, psychosis, learning disabilities , sexual assault, PTSD, alcohol and drug abuse, childhood sexual abuse, suicidal ideation, and eating disorders are some of the counselling issues that surface in session. Anxiety and depression are the most common concerns students seek assistance from The Counselling Centre. Twenty years ago, university counselling centres were not mental health clinics but they are now. Students use to come to counselling for relationship issues, loneliness, and study tips, now the concerns require multiple interventions from both on and off campus sources. Due to the rise in medication to treat mental illness, many students are coming to university who could not have before. University counselling centres now see students with multiple diagnoses and subsequently become their primary support, for their remaining years at school.  With fewer referral resources in the community, universities are stepping in to support their students in getting the help they require. 

These problems identified above, are not unique to Saint Mary’s University, as across Canada and the U.S., incidents of campus shootings and suicide attempts bring forth national attention and demonstrate the importance of early intervention.

According to the Canadian results from the ACHA-NCHA student survey in spring of 2013: In the past 12 months:

-  20% of students have been diagnosed with or treated for a mental health condition

-  54% report feeling “hopeless” at some time during the past year

-  89% state that they have felt “overwhelmed” by personal or academic responsibilities

-  38% have felt so depressed that it was difficult to function

-  42% report “overwhelming anger”


The preoccupation with food and weight occur along a scale from worrying about what we eat, and our body shape, to serious medical situations where an eating disorder is clinically diagnosed.

1% of university students are anorexic and there is a 5.6% mortality rate for eating disorders over ten years (Mortality in Anorexia Nervosa (1995), American Journal of Psychiatry, 152(7), 1073-1074).


Regular emotional ups and downs are part of life and are the result of various events in our lives. A person affected by a mood disorder, however, experiences these ups and downs too but the intensity, duration, and severity differ. Major mood disorders can be characterized by an intense lack of energy.

Depression & Substance Abuse:

Depression can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviours, and body functions and is not simply resolved by changes in circumstances. Individuals with depression tend to lose the capacity to experience enjoyment or satisfaction.

  • 8% of Canadian adults will experience major depression (Public Health Agency of Canada)
  • 15% of those with severe Major Depressive Disorder die by suicide (DSM-IV-TR)
  • 21% of adults who are depressed also engage in substance abuse (US Department of Health and Human Services)
  • 36% of students report intermittent binge drinking

Bipolar Disorder:

This disorder involves cycling between periods of depression and mania (very high energy involving excessive activity to the point where the individual is unable to control their impulses or behaviour).

  • Affects 1.5% of the population (Archives of General Psychiatry, 59, 115 – 123)
  • Lifetime risk of suicide is between 8 and 20% (American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 125- 132.)
  • Proper medical / pharmaceutical treatment is critical for reducing the risk of suicide
    • 2.57% annual suicide rate untreated vs. 0.20% treated (Annals of  the New York Academy of Sciences, 932, 24 - 38)


This medical condition is not as common but is very serious. It is, however, treatable with proper pharmaceutical treatment and family support being critical. Complete remission is rare. Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder, Delusional Disorder, etc. all fall under the bracket of psychosis and individuals affected by it lose a sense of reality. Symptoms can include auditory and visual hallucinations, bizarre or paranoid delusions, incoherent speech, extremely disorganized or odd behaviors, or “negative” symptoms.

  • It is a chronic illness that affects 1% of the population
  • Biological illness (genetic influence + neurotransmitter variations + abnormal brain structures + family history + environmental stressors)
  • It’s onset tends to be in the late teens (boys)/early twenties (girls)

 Students say that mental health issues have the greatest impact on their academic success.

  • Many students experience serious mental health problems while in university
  • 10% of students seek help from counselling services
  • 88% of directors report a trend towards more students with severe psychological problems
  • 90% have hospitalized students within the past year for psychological reasons
  • The ratio of counsellors to students at Saint Mary’s is approximately 1 to 1333.
  • Directors report that 39% of clients have “severe psychological problems”
  • 10% of counselling centres had to give warnings about students who posed dangers to others
  • 58% of clients report that counselling has helped them remain in school

(National Survey of College Counselling, ACCA, 2012)

 Everyone on campus is responsible for the well-being of students.   


  • Mental health problems can greatly impact the academic success of students
  • 20 years ago university counselling centres were not mental health clinics but they are now
  • Anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders and psychosis are concerns The Counselling Centre often deals with
  • The intensity, duration and severity at which individuals experience emotional ups and downs differs for people affected by mood disorders
  • Many students experience serious mental health problems while in university
  • Surveys indicate that counselling and early intervention strongly impact student retention.


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