Recently, I have seen memes bantering about adverse mental health states circulating around university students, routinely receiving an abundance of likes and comments on social media. Although I see most consumers of these memes as simply self-deprecating, I believe the popularity of these memes implies a degree of widespread, commonly experienced emotional and mental hardship among university students, which can lead to serious health problems if not treated appropriately.
Thus, I see it important for U of T to provide essential emotional support for students who are and will be needing it.
The mental well-being of university students is in jeopardy
Mental well-being is a broad umbrella term that consists of a variety of concepts, including “psychological functioning, life satisfaction, and ability to develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships,” as defined in an online cross-sectional study of university students.
In my view, many university students are more vulnerable to mental health issues due to leaving home for the first time and experiencing sudden changes in accustomed lifestyle and social roles. These stress-inducing factors are accentuated by the abrupt increase in the amount and difficulty of schoolwork from secondary schools to university, which commonly morphs into persistent academic stress.
According to an online questionnaire study conducted in Australia, the perceived stress level of students’ situations has increased in the past years and is continuing in this direction. Additionally, the online cross-sectional study indicated that over 60 per cent of university students in the Netherlands experience abundant levels of perceived stress, and over 50 per cent suffer from emotional exhaustion.
Therefore, it is not surprising that psychological symptoms among university students have increased over the last decades. World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys show that anxiety is the most prevalent disorder among university students, followed by mood disorders such as depression. With these examples from Australia and the Netherlands, I believe that U of T should start to be concerned with the increasing magnitude of university students facing mental health problems.
Universities should be protecting students’ mental well-being
Research studies in Anglophone countries suggest that external personal resources like social support can alleviate the negative impact of perceived stress on mental health. I believe that universities are the most convenient, familiar, and reliable source of social support for their students to consult when experiencing adversities, compared to psychological services outside of school that may not be attuned to academic environments or family members and friends that may not be physically proximate to the student.
In my view, universities should establish emotional support systems that can at least provide students with basic psychological counselling sessions. The number of US students who spontaneously reach out to request university counselling services has increased by 29.6 per cent since 2010, so students are demonstrating a need and a will to seek emotional support.
U of T currently offers a number of mental health resources for students. These include Navi, a tool used to learn about the available mental health resources at the university, as well as psychotherapy and outside referrals.
However, there are some concerns about the accessibility of these resources; as an example, some students experience long wait times before they are able to connect with a mental health professional.
I see current global society’s constant change and crises challenging everyone’s emotional state. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, a research study reported that the prevalence rate of probable clinical depression and anxiety in US university students upsurged to a surprising 48.1 per cent and 38.5 per cent, respectively. Evidently, other global crises also capture students’ attention, such as climate change or the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine, and induce intense emotional reactions.
I understand that U of T and its emotional support workers cannot comment officially on every single issue, but this should not affect universities’ emotional support because I believe emotional support workers can provide pure emotional support without ‘solving’ or lecturing on an issue.
Counselling can help students navigate emotional instabilities
Ample research evidence proves that university students’ mental health can improve after psychological counselling. What’s even better is that psychotherapy not only results in reduced negative psychological symptoms but may also address the emotional aspect of the help-seeker’s personal problems; ameliorate aspects of their social relationships and mental health functioning; or even boost their confidence through only a short-term intervention. In other words, emotional support can assist in navigating immediate emotional issues and equip students with methods to adjust and stabilize their emotions for future situations.
While offering academic education, I believe U of T should also direct its attention to students’ emotional and mental well-being. I will be delighted to see individuals who need emotional support receiving it — because we all need it.
Yujin Du is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying psychology, Buddhism, and East Asian studies.
Editor’s note (November 30, 2023): A previous version of this article stated that U of T currently offers self-guided counselling, but that the university should expand its resources to offer psychotherapy and referrals to medical professionals. The article has been amended to account for the fact that U of T does currently offer these resources to students, among others, but that mental health resources may be inaccessible in some circumstances.