Content warning: mentions of suicide.

Enrolling in a university program is a time of great expectation and excitement. Yet, for some, attending university may also present overwhelming challenges. Students often experience stress surrounding difficulties adjusting to a new culture and environment, establishing friendships, worries about student loan debt, and concerns about academic performance.

Research published by the Australian Psychological Society has also found that compared to the general population, university students experience higher levels of psychological distress, in part due to the unique stressors that they face. Consequently, the mental health and well-being of university students, and how they cope with challenges continues to be a significant concern.

Over the last two years, there have been four apparent deaths by suicide at U of T, with the most recent incident occurring on September 27 at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Many more University of Toronto students continue to experience feelings of sadness, exhaustion, and loneliness.

These tragedies, as well as the feelings of despair, highlight ongoing unresolved issues pertaining to student well-being, prompting serious conversation about the role of postsecondary institutions in creating supportive environments and developing effective strategies to address student mental health concerns.

Calls for additional mental health services and support on campus

In the wake of these unfortunate events, public outcry has drawn attention to what is perceived to be a lack of resources and support systems to effectively address the mental health needs of students enrolled at the institution. In a recent interview conducted by CBC, both students and administration at U of T expressed an urgent need for officials to tackle the mental health crisis by enhancing the availability of and accessibility to mental health services on campus.

Additionally, student-led organizations have specifically called for increases in funding for additional mental health services and staff, an increase of hours of operation for campus clinics, and implementation of 24-hour counselling services, particularly during exam periods. In light of these concerns and lamentable occurrences, the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health was also established to consult with students and stakeholders to assess the university’s existing mental health resources, and to explore new approaches to addressing student mental health needs.

Help-seeking preferences and student mental health

While enhancing the quality and accessibility of existing services on campus and implementing additional services and support are practical solutions, this alone may not prove sufficient in addressing student mental health issues.

Research conducted by Carey Marsh and Allen Wilcoxon has found that only a small percentage of students will utilize campus-based mental health services and supports, suggesting that the majority of students are less inclined to seek these services. These findings counter popular perceptions, given that many perceive the issue to be with university services. However, one possible explanation for this apparent inconsistency may relate to help-seeking preferences among university students.

In a recent study conducted by myself and supervised by Professor Stuart Kamenetsky for UTM’s Psychology Undergraduate Honours Thesis course, an ethnically diverse sample of 167 UTM undergraduates completed a modified version of the The Canadian Community Health Survey, indicating their help-seeking preferences. Participants were recruited from PSY100 — Introductory Psychology, which is one of the largest first-year courses on campus. However, further research on the topic might be helpful to indicate whether this trend persists across other faculties and disciplines of study.

Our study revealed that the majority of students would be inclined to seek support from natural sources such as family members and friends, as opposed to formal and professional sources such as university-based mental health clinics. It is possible that students are willing to seek support from people they can confide in and express themselves to most comfortably. In most cases, friends and family members are people with whom students have developed strong bonds of trust and confidence.

Opportunities for community and support building at U of T

As our research finds, natural supports — friends, family members — are the most preferred sources of support for many, highlighting the importance of these particular types of relationships for students. For some postsecondary institutions, however, opportunities to develop these supports are often limited.

In my experience, moving to Canada as an international student, and being away from family and friends for the first time, proved challenging. Developing natural supports was difficult, and I longed for a sense of community and belonging. If I had a difficult week or was concerned about exams, an opportunity to share these concerns with a friend would have reduced my worries and feelings of isolation and anxiety.

However, opportunities for community building were challenging, and at best, minimal. In fact, one major theme that was recently identified by the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health was feelings of loneliness and isolation among students, often due to challenges finding community on campus.

My personal experience and the recent findings of the task force draw attention to the possibility of inherent deficiencies in the format and structure of University of Toronto’s programs, which seem to provide insufficient opportunities for students to develop natural supports and build community. For example, across all three campuses, core classes offered during the first year are often very large, with up to 500 students attending a single lecture in a UTM class and up to 1,500 at UTSG.

For many students, large classes prove to be overwhelming, intimidating, and impersonal, which can potentially increase feelings of isolation and loneliness on campus. Further, despite the many advantages and conveniences of technology, the online courses offered by the university may also limit opportunities for students to build these friendships. In most online courses, students typically communicate through email, social media, and discussion boards, leaving very little opportunity for in-person interaction and engagement.

Alternatively, first-year seminars have become increasingly popular at U of T for incoming students. These seminars allow students who share similar interests to engage closely with each other in a more conducive environment, enhancing opportunities for networking and support building.

Supporting student mental health through community building

Natural support systems play an important role in students’ mental health and well-being, as a vast majority indicate a preference for this type of support. Institutional efforts to support student mental health should also be geared toward creating opportunities for community and support building. These efforts may include, but not be limited to, reducing the number of online courses — particularly in the first year — and creating opportunities for greater interaction and socialization among students on campus.

Faculty and administration may also consider introducing mandatory seminars and workshops into curricula to further enhance student engagement and interaction. Additionally, community and support building on campus can be facilitated through the establishment and promotion of school-based peer-support programs, cultural and religious affinity groups, and functional extracurricular activities.

Building support for student mental health requires a comprehensive approach by institutions, one in which traditional approaches are enhanced, and new approaches — premised on the importance of natural supports in students’ lives — also form part of the new paradigm in tackling student mental health.

Furthermore, shifting the university’s present reactive and curative approach toward the adoption of a more proactive and preventative model, where support and community building are emphasized, may further improve student mental health outcomes.

Rosalia Samuel is a recent Psychology graduate from the University of Toronto Mississauga. The study, supervised by Professor Stuart Kamenetsky, was part of UTM’s Psychology Undergraduate Honours Thesis course. The course instructor was Professor Glenn Schellenberg.

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention