The rise of anxiety and mood disorders among Canadian post-secondary students
By Sharon Miki, Assistant Editor
Whether it’s packing on the freshman 15, staying up all night cramming for exams, or spending thousands of dollars on never-opened textbooks, there are myriad downers to expect when you go to college and move into your twenties. However, something that most people don’t talk about—but many experience—are the serious, and sometimes debilitating, anxiety disorders that often emerge during peoples’ time as post-secondary students.
What is anxiety?
According to AnxietyBC, anxiety disorders (which are classified as social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder and agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and specific phobias) are the most common mental health problems afflicting British Columbians—currently affecting over 400,000 people in the province.
One of the problems with anxiety is that it—unlike a broken bone—it can be difficult to see or classify its symptoms; the signs and symptoms of anxiety can be numerous and sometimes nebulous—ranging from the physical (things like heart palpitations, dizziness, nausea, and muscle tension) to the emotional (like mood swings, fear, depression, and apprehension). As such, it can be difficult for people to determine if they are experiencing the normal ups-and-downs of living, or if they are suffering, and may benefit from treatment for, an anxiety disorder.
Anxious on campus
“A recent study is claiming five times as many high school and college students are dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues as youth of the same age who were studied in the Great Depression era,” Dave Gallson, Associate National Executive Director of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, told The Other Press. Gallson suggests that there may indeed be an increase in the occurrences of mood disorders acknowledged by those in the prime post-secondary age range of 18–25 year olds over the past decade. “[Twelve per cent] of Canadians will experience an anxiety disorder, and 75 per cent of those will have their first episode before they reach their 22nd birthday.”
But, life is hard in general for everybody, so why are college students so ripe for anxiety nowadays?
“College is usually the first time away from home on a steady basis for many students. They walk in to [it] leaving their usual network of support back in their homes and communities. Meeting new people, getting along with new roommates, navigating new social situations and pressures, maintaining academic responsibilities, being potentially exposed to parties, alcohol or drugs, and having to manage their own finances can certainly lead many students to becoming frazzled, overwhelmed, and stressed.”
Indeed, Lucy, a recent BC university graduate who deals with a number of anxiety disorders, noticed that her symptoms of anxiety—often crippling emotional and sometimes physical reactions to certain situations—intensified greatly when she went away to college and moved into adulthood, causing stress in her personal and family relationships and her employment, as going to work began to cause her physical symptoms of anxiety.
Lucy, however, suggests that generational issues might be underlying why her and her peers seem to suffer from anxiety in their youth at greater rates than those before them: ““We were all raised with these specific expectations of life—I was raised with the idea that ‘you can be whatever you want to be,’ but the reality is that you can’t. There are factors like money, and talent, and luck that make our parents’ liars. When we find we’re not adequately equipped to deal with the actual world, it scares us. We are not all special, but we were told that we were going to be and so when we grow up and realize we aren’t, we don’t know what to do.”
Treating anxiety disorders
If anxiety is affecting more and more students, how can people deal with it?
First of all, try not to panic. “Anxiety is normal, we all experience it but we don’t all have an anxiety disorder,” Arto Tienaho, Executive Director of AnxietyBC, told The Other Press.
Mild to moderate anxiety is extremely common, and AnxietyBC suggests that using general self-help awareness strategies can be uses to cope. Strategies like learning about and understanding the signs of anxiety, using breathing and relaxation techniques, and facing fears through exposure can help manage anxiety if symptoms are mild.
However, there comes a point where anxiety develops into a disorder, in which case it may require further treatment. In these cases, Tienaho notes “anxiety is highly treatable with treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is an evidence-based psychological treatment for mood disorders like those related to anxiety. CBT focuses on the idea that our thoughts and emotions impact our behavior; CBT strives to help people pinpoint and understand the thoughts that cause anxiety, and then find ways to look at situations from a more balanced perspective.
The stigma of mental health issues
Although anxiety and anxiety disorders are treatable when people recognize them, some people might be wary of acknowledging the issues due to the lingering stigma of mental health issues.
That is, while anxiety disorders are common and treatable, people may feel apprehensive about talking about them or treating them for fear of being labeled as having a mental illness. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “public attitudes and beliefs, often based on fear and misunderstanding, stereotype individual with mental illness, exposing them to prejudice and discrimination.”
The unfortunate byproduct of the fear of stigma is that, for those who have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, there can be an overwhelming sense of being alone in the struggle, even if surrounded by a classroom of others who may quietly share the experience.
“The thing with anxiety that I’ve learned is that you’re actually sick, but people can’t see it so they perceive you as just being weak or whatever, or you’re afraid that people will see you that way, and that starts a whole cycle of issues,” Lucy, said. “I feel like I’m doing it, life, wrong, and I don’t understand why I can’t glide through things like people around me seem to.”
For more information on anxiety disorders or cognitive behavioral therapy, visit AnxietyBC at
For more information on mood disorders in Canada, visit the Mood Disorders Society of Canada website at www.mooddisorderscanada.ca