One-third of McMaster students battle depression: survey

About 35 per cent of McMaster students report feeling depressed, and a little over one per cent have attempted suicide, the university's mental health team nurse says.

Town hall session part of mental illness awareness week

Debra Earl, mental health team nurse, and Huzaifa Saeed, vice-president education with the McMaster Students Union, pose with a T-shirt promoting mental illness awareness week. The pair spoke at a session at McMaster on Monday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

About 35 per cent of McMaster students report feeling depressed, and a little over one per cent have attempted suicide, the university's mental health team nurse says.

At a town hall meeting marking mental illness awareness week, Debra Earl showed the results of a survey of 950 undergraduate students in 2009.

In that sampling, 6.5 per cent of students had considered suicide, while half reported being overwhelmed with anxiety. About 10 of the 950 had tried to kill themselves.

"The high percentage of students expressing hopelessness and despair was surprising," Earl said after the meeting. "I was also surprised by the degree of suicidality."

The Mental Health at McMaster town hall, sponsored by the McMaster Students Union (MSU), was just one event during Stomp Out Stigma, a week of awareness about mental health issues. The rest of the week features suicide prevention training, a Stomp Out Stigma rally and a pancake breakfast.

In the past 10 years, McMaster has seen an increase in teens coming to university with diagnosed mental health issues, Earl said.

About 40 per cent of the students who use the Student Wellness Centre's mental health services are depressed, and about 30 per cent experience anxiety, she said. Often they seek help when they start having trouble with school.

"They say 'I can't get my work done. I'm not sleeping. I can't concentrate,'" Earl said. "They reveal the depressive symptoms they've been fighting with for a long time, but they don't come in until it affects their academics."

The town hall session, attended by about 50 students, focused on how to reduce the stigma of mental illness and make services more accessible for students.

Students often buckle under the weight of heavy course schedules and the increasing demand for them to do extracurricular activities to enhance their resumes, said Huzaifa Saeed, MSU's vice-president education.

"Academic success is directly impeded by stress," he said.

'It's everywhere'

Commerce student Kafia Mohamud attended the session because she is interested in the issue. She experienced her own mental health issues in the second year of university, although she still isn't sure how to identify it.

"I stumbled around it in circles," she said. "I got it together, but I can't say I ever really figured out what was going on."

Awareness Week is important because "there are far too many students who don't think about these issues," she said.  "They're not intending to be inconsiderate, but they're not aware."

McMaster will conduct another student mental health survey in February. Twenty-five per cent of the population will deal with some sort of mental illness in their lifetimes, and that is reflected at McMaster, Earl said.

"It's everywhere," she said. "It's almost like the common cold. It's so prevalent that it can't be ignored."

This graph shows some of the responses to a mental health survey of McMaster University students in 2009. The university is conducting another survey in February.


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca