Student debt does not equal mental illness

Financial stress isn’t a mental illness, it’s a fact of life—and it masks the bigger issue at play

Photograph by Janine Wiedel

Photograph by Janine Wiedel

At the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, they want a review of mental health services on campuses and point to a common problem. “At Dalhousie University, for example,” says CFS-NS chairperson Anna Dubinski, “it’s quite easy to get a preliminary meeting with a counsellor, but it takes weeks or sometimes months before you get regular counselling. We think that’s not right.”

Many people would agree.

It happened to Abby Andrew, a fourth-year English student at Queen’s University. When she was struggling with depression in first year, all she got from the health centre on campus was a prescription for  antidepressants and a list of off-campus counsellors. She didn’t think she needed a therapist and just waited for the medication to kick in. No one ever followed up. She continued to struggle until her second year, when someone convinced her to see a psychiatrist, who taught her how to work through her problems. Those were “a combination of relationships, the amount of schoolwork, and living with a roommate who I was comparing myself with all the time,” she says. “Just normal things first-years go through—and me not being able to cope as well.”

Her story shows why the CFS-NS campaign could make a real difference, but also why it risks being ignored. While its goal is laudable, its explanation will cause many to roll their eyes. It suggests debt is one of the main causes of the student mental health crisis, a point Dubinski reiterated over the phone. “As tuition continues to increase and funding continues to be taken away from our post-secondary education system, students are simultaneously being asked to take on more [debt],” she says, “and they have increased levels of stress as a result.”

But financial stress isn’t a mental illness so much as a fact of life. If students buy into the idea that normal life stressors equal mental illness, they’re going to be in for a rude awakening when they finish school and have to deal with the even bigger stress of the work world. University administrators, who decide whether to hire counsellors or cut them to save money, know this. If the CFS-NS wants to be taken seriously, they’re shouldn’t be equating normal stress to mental illness.

It’s easy to see why the CFS-NS is confused. Financial stress can trigger mental illness, but only in those people who are already susceptible, explains Gordon Flett, a York University psychologist and Canada Research Chair in personality and health. People who suffer from anxiety and depression are prone to it because of a negative self-image, which is likely caused by genes, adverse experiences early in life, or a combination of both. Mental illness can be exacerbated by all kinds of things—$30,000 student loans included—but that doesn’t make it a cause.

Flett explains that there are essentially three personality styles visible in children, and that they are carried into adulthood unless there’s some intervention along the way: “the resilients,” who bounce back from stress, “the under-controlled,” who seem to act out a lot, and the “over-controlled,” who are more cautious—and more prone to anxiety and depression.

But, like Abby Andrew, they can learn how to cope. This is something Flett will attempt at 14 high schools in York Region, just north of Toronto, this year. Among the things “over-controlled” personality types need to grasp if they’re to avoid mental illness is that they are not “fixed” that way, but are a work in progress. They need to understand that not everyone is an overachiever and they shouldn’t measure themselves by another person’s standards. And they need to recognize how to confront stress with strategies like time management and healthy living (exercise, sleeping on a schedule, not drinking too much, for example).

All of these things can be learned in university, preferably earlier. Suggesting mental health problems are caused by student debt is only going to distract from the bigger issue: Not enough counsellors teaching students how to cope.


Student debt does not equal mental illness

  1. What a strange – and strangely misguided – article. I worked at Queen’s University for years, providing mental health services to struggling students; don’t get me wrong – I think counseling services are invaluable – but to call a shortage of such services the “missing link” in student mental health is bizarre – and just plain wrong. No, student debt doesn’t “make” one depressed – at least, not all on its own. Take my story – I graduated from medical school with spectacular debt – so why wasn’t I depressed? Well, maybe it’s because I had a means to pay it off, with a good job awaiting me on graduation! How many kids have that to look forward to these days?

    Each fall, tens of thousands of young Canadians descend on university campuses – many, too young, thanks to the cost-saving abolishment of grade 13 – and many, ill-prepared not only for the sudden temptations of university life, but for the somber job market that awaits them on graduation. Parents of my generation can’t shake that belief that “smart kids go to university, while dumb kids go to college,” unaware that their own kids will graduate $40K in-debt – and ironically, needing to return to college to learn some marketable skill. There are many junctures where the tide of mental illness turns – at the high school level, where kids are regularly misled into thinking a simple B.A. equals a J.O.B., at home, where parents push their kids to fulfill the out-dated dreams of their own generation, the universities themselves, which continue to court students with false promises in the way of degrees without currency. To summarize the problem as “not enough counselors teaching students how to cope” is rather beside-the-point and begs the question as to whether our energies might be better spent in *changing* the current reality, rather than merely “teaching students how to cope” with it.

  2. It also could be the obvious fact that “Tuitions” have rose exponetially, and unrealistically higher than they should be, compared to yesteryears.
    Couple that with cost-of-living in the real world, and it’ll take 3 times as long just to pay it back. Of course, this is of great “interest” to universities, gov’t and banks.
    Forget depressed, canadians we should be ANGRY at these over-salaried Universities, and their Administrations. -there’s your main problem.

  3. Tuition being high is not the best thing in the world for depression, but I don’t think that is the main problem. I think the main issue is how most students dreams get crushed once they realise that they won’t have a management position waiting for them when they graduate, or a 60K salary. Instead they find a job market that is challenging to enter. Ken Coates has a great book on this subject. I think it promotes awareness for other options other than university, and it can reduce the stress load that can be the cause of depression.


  4. It’s amazing how often the answer on here is ‘don’t go to university’

    We should be promoting it, but nooooo….

  5. It’s unfortunate that this article doesn’t touch on the fact students are more in debt than ever before, 4-5 times more than they had been 50 years ago. Not only that but course loads are larger than ever. Considering high school children’s stress levels are compared to mental patients in the 1960s; and that’s just high school, I suggest doing real research before downplaying a serious issue affecting the young people in Canada.

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