Mental Health, the Global Sphere, and UofT

TAHMID HASIB KHAN

The juxtaposition of mental health with campus life can be troubling for many, as the holistic experience of a post-secondary education comes with a host of challenges that students are usually ill-equipped to handle. Skills such as effective memorization and time management, in addition to having the capacity to handle extreme mental pressure and sleep deprivation are not mentioned in the “Requirements” section of university brochures. Consequently, in addition to those students who have fought with mental illness from a very young age, there are those who have only just come to realize they are dealing with similar mental obstacles once thrusted inside a daunting class environment. Those unadvertised, aforementioned skills can help students overcome an exam season, a midterm or an assignment. While there are ongoing discussions surrounding the topic, we wanted to take this opportunity to explore the landscape through the lens of global public health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) definition of health – as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,’ – is often thrown around when institutions are setting their own policies. In our scoping of the international landscape, we will further scrutinize the WHO definition. Statistics will reveal how one of the key attributes of determining health, the issue of mental health, is often overlooked and misunderstood. According to the 2017 Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Mental Health and Human Rights, one in four people are affected by mental health illnesses in their lifetime. Its prevalence outnumbers cancer, diabetes and heart disease worldwide. In recent years, we have developed sophisticated methodologies to quantify the burden of both fatal and nonfatal diseases such as years lived with disability (YLD) and disability-adjusted life years (DALY; the combination of the burden of disease due to mortality and disability). According to the Global Burden of Disease Study conducted in 2010, major depressive disorder is the second highest contributing factor to YLDs. Mental illnesses account for roughly 7.4% of the world’s quantifiable burden of disease. As such, there is an obvious need for funding to be directed towards improving mental health treatment infrastructure.

A shift to a more local lens would reveal an equally disappointing picture. Across university campuses we see the grim reality of how mental health can hinder students. Stigma such as negative stereotyping also serves as a roadblock to students seeking adequate help. Although resources are appropriately allocated, strides need to be made before we can be satisfied with our efforts of dealing with mental health on campus. A systematic review of 23 articles carried out by Storrie, Ahern and Ticket (2010) revealed that among students from campuses in three different continents, common causes of mental illness were poor grades, academic probation leading to depression, and compromised emotional and behavioural skills due to academic and familial pressures as well as social isolation. For many readers, such experiences are all too common. Recent trends show that after 1994, stress/anxiety has been topping the list of problems reported in university counselling centres. Rates of depression have doubled, and suicide cases have increased three-fold since then. The universities harbouring a cosmopolitan demographic become a testament to the fact that these problems are shared by international and domestic students alike. The representation of a global problem through a heterogeneous sample should be further proof of this growing issue.

A case from a University of Toronto student highlights the multifaceted nature of this issue. In March 2016, Josh Grondin was suffering from consecutive panic attacks the night before his linear algebra midterm. He had been battling with mental health issues from a very young age and was thus aware of the severity of such episodes. On the morning of the exam, he visited Health and Wellness on campus as soon as it had opened and obtained a medical note indicating he was ‘unfit to perform academic obligations.’ While course regulations tell us that this documentation was enough to be pardoned from an exam, his professor rejected this by claiming that he appeared healthy. This incident demonstrates the sheer lack of general, comprehensive knowledge on mental health. After Grondin posted about the incident on Twitter, it elicited mixed reactions. There was more support for the positive perspective and at the end of the day it got people engaging in substantial conversations about mental health across various educational institutions and beyond. There is, however, much to cover about understanding the symptoms, overcoming the stigma and ensuring the proper treatment considerations.

There are several wellness resources available to students at the University of Toronto:

1. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) provides patient assessments, brief interventions, inpatient programs, day hospital services, continuing care, outpatient services and family support. They also offer Emergency Services which may hold patients for a certain period of time if they pose a threat to themselves or others..

2. Full-time undergraduate students at the University of Toronto have access to up to 20 visits with psychologists, and are covered for $125 per visit. Health and Wellness can be a good first point of contact for this. Their address is 214 College Street, 2nd Floor and can be reached at (416)-978-8030.

3. If someone is more accustomed to spiritual practices, there are chaplains on campus who offer spiritual guidance and in-person advising. The Multi-Faith Centre at the University offers various services/mass/jummah etc. on campus every week. They can be contacted at (416)-946-3120.

4. A student-run club by the name of Kinesiology & Physical Education Roadmap to Wellness (KPERMW) has been increasing awareness of accessibility and mental health services provided at a reduced cost (or no additional costs) on- and off-campus both by the University of Toronto’s Student Health Plan, and by student social services in Ontario. They also aim to promote the practice of help-seeking behaviours and work to develop productive coping skills among students.

Additional Ulife clubs worth mentioning: In Visibility, Mindfulness Association(UTMA), Minds Matter Magazine(MMM) and UMatter.