Recognizing realities and needs of the Millennial generation in an ongoing effort to support mental wellness.
Mental health. It’s a topic that elicits a full spectrum of feelings, opinions, and responses among individuals. Some openly embrace discussions or may have direct experience with it, whereas others avoid or are uncomfortable with the topic, potentially brushing it off as something that doesn’t affect them. When you get right down to it, however, mental health conditions are a reality faced by many Canadians, just like cancer, diabetes, and any other condition of a physical-health nature.
Consider the following statistics: One in five Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem in any given year.1 Of any age group in Canada, youth between the ages of 15 and 24 experience the highest instance of mental health issues.2 Among Canadian students, over 50 percent have felt overwhelming anxiety and a sense of hopelessness in the last 12 months.3 These are powerful numbers and ones that speak volumes about the importance of awareness, education, acceptance, early intervention, and prevention to help youth and young adults who may be suffering a mental health issue.
Millennials in transition
The years leading up to and into post-secondary bring a wide variety of changes that, for some, may become difficult to juggle and navigate. Students face the immediate pressures of academics and finances, as well as the anticipated responsibilities on the horizon of finding employment, understanding and handling personal finances, and planning for the future from a family perspective. And when paired with the fact that this life stage coincides with a developmental time frame when most mental illnesses manifest, it’s clear how the post-secondary experience can leave Millennials at a heightened level of vulnerability.
While opinions sometimes vary as to whether youth are less resilient than generations past, it’s important to realize that some pressure points and societal influences have greatly changed. Youth do face some consistent aspects such as moving out and gaining independence from the family, but other factors are creating new stresses. “Academic stress trumps everything when it comes to generating anxiety among students,” notes Dr. Andrea Levinson, Staff Psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and Psychiatrist-in-Chief, U of T’s Student Life Programs. This demographic is facing more competition both to get into and within academic programs, as well as increased challenges in the job market; coupled with rising education costs and related financial stresses for some students, the situation can quickly become overwhelming. “Another key differentiator these days is the impact of constant connectivity. Students struggle with shutting things off, and as a result are unable to reflect, lack any true downtime, and experience interrupted sleep/wake regulation,” shares Dr. Levinson.
Moving beyond the stigma
Turn the clock back 20 years, and there would be distinct differences in both awareness levels and how mental health was addressed and accepted among all age groups compared to today. However, with increased media exposure and a variety of awareness campaigns through provincial and national organizations and hospitals, Canada is taking encouraging steps forward. “It’s an ongoing journey and a need — and one that we must not be complacent about. While we haven’t yet reached an optimal level of dialogue and awareness, we are really moving ahead in a positive direction,” shares Dr. Levinson.
Specifically in relation to Millennials, an important change from decades ago is that youth and students themselves are very much engaged in the issues and are increasingly advocating for the youth body as a whole. There’s also been a growing recognition of the significant responsibilities within schools and communities at large. “Even 10 to 15 years ago, the discussions may have been there, but there wasn’t the level of implementation of infrastructure and embedded ideology that we see now. It goes beyond just the services to a level where the entire institution is on board,” says Dr. Levinson.
“Another positive indication is that some students are able to pre-identify their vulnerabilities, which proves to be valuable in preparing for the actual transition when the time comes,” Dr. Levinson explains. Part of this comes from the fact that mental health is more commonly accepted and there’s more dialogue around it, so young people are engaging in the supports that are now readily available, which was not the case 15 or 20 years ago.
Types and trends
“Among the students we see in counselling, anxiety is the number-one problem, and mood-related issues rank second, and they commonly co-exist,” notes Dr. Levinson. In relation to gender, while it often depends on the specific illness, in general women are more likely to suffer from depression and eating disorders, whereas men more commonly experience substance-abuse issues and externalizing behaviours. Rates of bipolar and personality-related conditions are fairly equal among men and women. “There is, however, a clear gender difference when it comes to seeking out service,” notes Dr. Levinson. “Young women more readily act, seek help, and attend groups.”
Signs and symptoms
A main challenge for parents and other family members in identifying issues may come down to a matter of geography. Youth often move away to attend school, making it more difficult to recognize signs and symptoms because of a lack of daily contact. A helpful strategy to consider is establishing a mutual expectation of how and when to stay in contact leading into the transition, as establishing open lines of communication beforehand helps pave the way for when a student makes the actual shift into campus life. This marks an instance where modern-day technology and connectivity becomes very useful. With programs like FaceTime™ and Skype™, parents and family members can actually see their children while talking, which may be beneficial for identifying potential issues or changes.
Though the signs and symptoms vary depending on specific illnesses, some key warning signs parents, family members, and friends should look out for include a change in ability to engage, not attending meals or activities, dropping out of things they normally enjoy, not attending class, actively isolating themselves or avoiding social situations, weight loss, weight gain, looking different physically, complaints of not sleeping, focusing on negatives, and expressing feelings of hopelessness. While there are varying levels of each symptom, signs should be taken seriously, as situations may sometimes escalate quickly, Dr. Levinson emphasizes.
The family-student-campus connection
While the journey for students into post-secondary generally marks a transition into greater independence, as a baseline, it’s important for families to become familiar with the services offered on campus or in the community, as well as connecting with residence dons, roommates, or other close peers. Many universities also have student deans, who support all undergraduate and graduate student life activities, offer assistance to those in need, and act as liaisons to promote students’ academic and personal experiences.
Through cohesive efforts through schools, families, and communities, there’s a growing climate of awareness, support, and resources across the country. With continued focus on building upon the positive progress in meeting youth needs, we, as a society, can help ensure youth always have access to and are receiving the right support at the right time, providing the tools and means they need to thrive.