In an institution as large as the University of Toronto, with over 90,000 students across our three different campuses, it is normal to feel as though you are just another number.
Mental illness is one of Canada’s major health concerns. Approximately one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness or addiction problem in their lifetime. This statistic only grows more concerning among young adults, with suicide being the second leading cause of death for those aged 15–24, coming only after accidents. In response to a 2016 survey of Ontario students conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 40 per cent of participants said that they experience feelings of anxiety or depression but did not seek medical assistance.
Studying in such a high-pressure environment means that it is likely that thoughts of inadequacy will flit in and out of your head. Yet U of T students are the masters of presenting the illusion that everything is fine as we rush along St. George Street. Often, we end up trivializing our stresses by telling our friends that we just have a lot of work on our plates or that we haven’t slept in a week. In actuality, sometimes a bad day is caused by more than our academics or extracurriculars. Why is it that even if we are not alone in our struggles, it sometimes seems futile to reach out for help? And if we do end up asking for help, why is it so difficult to get it?
One barrier to asking for help is the stigma surrounding mental illness, particularly in a competitive academic climate. We often don’t want to admit that something is wrong, because then we will feel judged and misunderstood or be treated differently by our peers. We pass off our worries as trivial or merely a symptom of an increasing workload, when in reality, the causes can be complex and perhaps worth exploring with a friend or professional.
Societal attitudes may also contribute to this fear of being vulnerable. While depression is reported to be less frequent among men than women, men comprise four of every five suicide deaths.
“We have inculcated a culture in our society that men have to be tough,” says Dr. Don McCreary, co-chair of Toronto Men’s Health Network. “Weakness is not considered to be masculine.” Too often, men don’t talk about their emotional difficulties, because it runs contrary to modern ideals of masculinity: silent resolve and detachment.
Institutional barriers may be at play as well, with a certain university-mandated leave of absence policy being recently imposed. This may result in students with serious mental illnesses being even more intimidated to disclose their mental health issues and reach out for support.
Another issue of access is the long wait time, and this often means that students will have to cope with their mental health alone until there is a vacancy with a counsellor or psychiatrist. It can take many weeks of waiting for just an initial intake assessment; once the assessment is completed, students will be placed on yet another waitlist until they finally receive an appointment with a psychotherapist, psychiatrist, or other specialist.
If you think that you may be suffering from poor mental health — even if you are unsure whether your mental condition warrants serious treatment — it may be helpful to book an appointment with the Health & Wellness Centre. Although it is near-impossible to get an immediate appointment, you do have free access to the walk-in clinics as a U of T student. If it is your first time seeking help, Health & Wellness will appoint you a family physician who will discuss your symptoms and then refer you to a specialist appropriate to your needs.
In-person one-on-one counselling on campus isn’t just limited to options at Health & Wellness — there are services that are college-specific, but you’ll need to be part of the affiliated college. University College, for example, has recently implemented a service called Counselling & Psychotherapy, a short-term counselling service available to students for concerns ranging anywhere from self-esteem issues to anxiety or depression to substance or alcohol abuse. This option may be beneficial if you are currently on a waitlist and you need immediate professional attention.
There are some other more immediate options such as Good2Talk (1-866-925-5454), a helpline through which you are anonymously connected with a professional counsellor who will help you navigate your feelings and offer suggestions for services that are most appropriate for your situation. Similar helplines include the Gerstein Centre Crisis Line (416-929-5200) and the Toronto Distress Centre (416-408-4357), both of which operate 24 hours a day.
If you do not wish to speak on the phone, there are also online chat services, such as The Online Chat & Text service, which operates in the same vein as a helpline. You can also contact Kids Help Phone, which has text, phone, and web support and offers help regardless of age, and the Canada Suicide Prevention Service, which is accessible via phone and text.
These provide you with an avenue to voice your concerns anonymously and receive professional advice from a highly trained volunteer responder.
However, there are limitations to the helplines, which is why it is even more important that U of T prioritizes mental health care for its students. For example, there may be some occasions when you are put on hold for helplines such as Good2Talk, if all available responders are occupied. As such, it’s important to have a range of options readily available in case your go-to isn’t feasible. In some cases, calling a close friend or family member may be the best option.
Remember: seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of acknowledging that something is amiss. It takes a lot of courage to take the steps to seek therapy or disclose personal issues to your peers.
Reducing mental health stigma starts with being open to being vulnerable. No problem is too big or too small. Every concern matters.