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Eleanor Vannon was a student at Camosun College in Victoria when fear literally stopped her.
Vannon had been scared in high school, but she had high expectations of herself and felt she had to be "the strongest and toughest". At the same time, she was plagued by low self-esteem and questioned whether she even deserved a post-secondary education.
Then, one day in 2017, when she had four essays due, each 2,000 to 3,000 words long, she froze.
"I wandered the Camosun campus in a panic and thought, 'I don't know if I have enough time to read everything for this thesis.' And I found a quiet bench and sat down and started hyperventilating and crying," Vannon saidThe currentis Matt Galloway.
Vannon is far from alone. According to the 2019 National College Health Assessment, which surveyed 55,284 post-secondary students in Canada, 21.2 percent of respondents felt "so depressed it was difficult to function," and 23.2 percent felt "overwhelming anxiety." . More than 10 percent had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, and 1.9 percent had attempted suicide.
The British Columbia government just launched a 24-hour online and phone service for students with mental health issues. Meanwhile, Ontario's Kids Help Phone is expanding its services to college and university students.
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Vannon, now a third-year student at the University of Victoria, had learned coping skills as a teenager, but none that prepared her for the pressures of post-secondary life. The panic, she says, fed her depression.
"And if you feel like you can't, then you're not good enough. And if you're not good enough, then you're worthless," said the 27-year-old.
UBC leader 'slid into an ever deeper depression'
It's a feeling very familiar to Santa J. Ono. As President of the University of British Columbia, Ono understands the tremendous pressure that students face, especially at the university level - from teachers, parents and peers alike.
The 57-year-old knows these feelings firsthand. At 14, Ono had two siblings who were child prodigies, and he felt deeply inadequate. Growing up in an Asian immigrant family in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood also made him feel like he didn't belong, he says.
"I felt increasingly hopeless. I felt increasingly inadequate, like I would never live up to the expectations of those around me - that I was bringing shame to my family," Ono told Galloway.
He describes an evening in his youth when he went into the medicine cabinet and took a pile of medicines.
"I took as many of these as I could."
3 years ago duration1:46
UBC President describes his own mental health issues
3 years ago
Ono survived that first suicide attempt, but he later tried a second time as a young academic at Johns Hopkins University. He recalls being so depressed that he could barely get out of his dorm bed, bathe, or eat.
"If I'm not eating right, if I'm not having the kind of positive influences in my day, you just go into deeper and deeper depression," says Ono, who was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition that causes swings between episodes of depression and involves overarousal.
Ono received the treatment he needed, but it wasn't until 25 years later that the successful academic spoke publicly about his experiences with mental illness, in large part due to academic culture.
“You go through a number of different hurdles to get to a place where you have employment and get promoted. And these are all judging processes that collect data on how you perform and how you post. and the impact of your work and what people think of you," he says. "So I was afraid to talk about my life story, my life experience."
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But now, Ono is determined to turn the tide and ensure students who need them get proper mental health support.
At UBC, the Thrive program promotes mental health literacy and a supportive campus culture, providing faculty, staff and students with resources to help them understand and manage mental illness. The school also offers peer support programs for those with mental health issues, a wellness center for students who are feeling stressed by academic or personal issues, and a free 24/7 life coaching and counseling service available in multiple languages .
Today's Freeze, Fight or Flight
Psychiatrist and author Shimi Kang says many students don't understand that their bodies finish puberty in grade 12, but their brains go through its own puberty until around age 24 -- and that they're particularly vulnerable to feelings of social isolation and separation are exacerbated by our technology-based society.
Young kids are too busy today, and they're taught to compete rather than collaborate, Kang adds. Then, when they enter college, burdened with enormous expectations, they can feel empty and lost.
"If we're not socially connected, we don't get oxytocin and we release something called cortisol, a stress hormone," she says. This release of cortisol can result in a modern day version of Freeze, Fight or Flight.
Even if the goal is academic, we see better mental health when we teach young people emotional skills and social skills.- Shimi Kang, psychiatrist and author
“Freezing, fight or flight in animals may be a deer in the headlights, but our freezing is fear. We're mentally frozen. We hesitate. We can't make a decision," Kang explains. “Our struggle is that we are irritated and angry at the world and at ourselves, and our escape is any kind of mental escape. So we drink alcohol, we smoke marijuana, we go shopping or we go on social media.”
According to Kang, the key to counteracting this sense of isolation is for universities to bring students together ("they literally see each other's faces and eyeballs") and encourage real social and emotional connections.
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"Even though the goal is academic, we see better mental health when we teach young people emotional skills and social skills," says Kang, who also recommends educating parents about how to reduce the pressure on their children.
"I have parents who, when I talk about health or happiness, say, 'Don't worry, that'll come later. Can you increase the medication?' But when I actually start to associate success with resilience and creativity and 21st-century collaboration and communication skills, the things that we know the workforce wants,” she says, “then they start to understand how important it is.”
"We have a responsibility"
Ono says it's difficult to compare his experience to what students experience today. On the one hand, they can speak more freely about their mental health problems; On the other hand, they face unprecedented challenges.
“The most profound moment for me was when the student body president on the Okanagan campus asked thousands of freshmen if they were optimistic about the future of the world. Only one hand went up out of thousands,” says Ono. “A lot of university students worry about the future of the world, about their future.
But is it too much to expect universities to offer mental health services to students? Ono says no, arguing that universities are privileged institutions and can play a role in creating systemic change from the ground up.
“We train future superintendents. We train teachers,” says Ono. “So I think we have a responsibility. It's not a question of fairness. It's a question of rising to the challenge and taking a leadership role.”
Where to get help
Canada Suicide Prevention Service:
Toll Free 833-456-4566
In French: Quebec Association for Suicide Prevention: 866-APPELLE (866-277-3553)
Telephone for child support:
SMS: TALK to 686868 (English) or TEXTO to 686868 (French)
Live chat advice atwww.kidshelpphone.ca
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Anne Penman