Ninety per cent of students surveyed said they were overwhelmed by the demands of their academic careers.
It’s official. Canadian university students are boring.
They may think they’re all party animals, going hard on drugs and booze. But, according to the first-ever nationwide health survey of post-secondary students in Canada, a third of them say they haven’t had a drink in a month and the majority have never smoked a cigarette or marijuana.
When they are drinking, a third of them report alternating non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages, eating beforehand and setting a maximum number of drinks.
They wear their seatbelts, their bike helmets, they get vaccinations and go to the dentist. A fifth have been tested for HIV. And half of them are monogamous, reporting they’ve had one sexual partner in the last year.
And it’s no wonder students aren’t the party animals they perceive themselves to be.
They’re too busy being overwhelmed, stressed and exhausted by their academic careers, according to the study released Monday at a conference of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.
According to the survey, 89 per cent of students said they were overwhelmed by all they had to do; nearly 54 per cent reported being hopeless and 64 per cent lonely sometime in the past 12 months; 86.9 per cent said they were exhausted, 56 per cent felt overwhelming anxiety and nearly 10 per cent had seriously considered suicide.
“The mental health issues are definitely compelling — the level and breadth of distress,” says Dr. Su-Ting Teo, director of student health and wellness at Ryerson. Teo is also president of the Canadian Organization of University College Health which co-ordinated the survey.
Health professionals in universities have been aware of the mental health needs of their own students, says Teo, but the survey will allow educators to look for solutions beyond their own institutions.
“We have the proof that it’s just not my institution. It’s not just Ontario,” said Teo. “It really is across the country.”
The data will be used to determine the needs of students as well as create a national benchmark.
The results were pooled from a survey or more than 30,000 students at 34 colleges and universities.
“This is an amazing data set to do research with and find out what’s happening with students because they’re really at a critical time in terms of leaning and developing things,” says Teo.
Part of the problem may have to do with students moving away from home for the first time.
“They’re learning how to manage their finances and their relationships. They’re learning a whole new academic system, which is different from high school,” she says. “And they’re just so much less supported. In high school you have a schedule. You need to show up. In university or college, if you don’t show up, nobody knows. No on is checking up on you.
“It’s a huge shift,” she says.
Students reported their academic performance was more likely to suffer due to anxiety (28.4 per cent), sleep difficulties (27.1 per cent) or stress (38.6 per cent), instead of factors such as alcohol use (4.9 per cent) or a difficult relationship (12.9 per cent).
The survey also showed that students had a warped sense of just how much their peers were partying.
Students thought 80 per cent had used marijuana in the last month compared to the 16 per cent that actually did. They believed about 80 per cent had at least one cigarette in that time period, a figure that was actually 11.6 per cent. And they thought 95 per cent of their peers had at least one drink in the last 30 days when just over 70 per cent did.
Teo says those results will help demystify what people believe are the health behaviours of students as well as allow other students to resist peer pressure.
Teo, a physician, says she has seen a growth in mental health issues among students since she began working at Ryerson in 2000.
Other factors at play could be the increased cost of tuition over the past 20 years, the competition for jobs and the lack of security that students will face in the workplace. Today, there’s also more of an expectation that people need to get a post-secondary education to succeed, says Teo.
The survey has been done by schools in the U.S. and Canada before but this is the first time the data has been pooled nationwide here. Students in the 34 largest colleges and universities were surveyed between January and April this year.