Backpack? Check. Laptop? Check. Pens? Check. Anxiety medication? Check.
By: Caitlin McKay, Staff Writer
As students prepare for the upcoming semester, there might be one more thing to add to the checklist: medication to control anxiety and stress. Post-secondary education is supposed to be one of the best experiences of one’s life, but for some students, it can trigger some very serious mental health issues.
A student can’t just be a student because the post secondary experience is not about good grades anymore. Now, students have to work to pay for their education, volunteer to gain relevant work experience and go to class. Oh, AND fit in time for friends, the gym, homework, eating, sleeping and general life enjoyment. What’s more, as competition for jobs increases and more people attend post-secondary institutions, the pressure to be outstanding intensifies. It seems like students are starting to crack.
“I think that it is kind of a society wide phenomenon… people have higher expectations, you can’t just be good, you have to be really good, or at least that’s the perception out there,” explains Dr. Mike Condra, Director of Health, Counseling and Disability Services at Queen’s University. “This creates a situation in which you can continue to set the bar higher and higher and we know how difficult that is…but when you keep raising the bar, you keep giving people less and less room to feel comfortable because there is always something to strive for.”
When students look for work, either during the summer or after graduation, they face stiff competition from their peers and from workers who have been laid off during the recession. It’s tough to get noticed and it seems that the only way to stand out is have an exceptional resume. As Dr. Condra remarks:
“I think the broader financial circumstances and the recession has all kinds of implications. Employment prospects are not bad, but they’re not terrific, money is tight … so that’s all part of the context. I think people look around and say, ‘ok, you know, not great jobs prospects, not great future and high financial pressure.’ I think all of those create the environment in which stress levels can increase significantly.”
Dr. Anna Lisa Ciccocioppo, the Career Development Coordinator at the University of Calgary’s Counseling Centre, echoes this sentiment: “Students are coming in with career related concerns and it’s a very similar pattern that follows the unemployment rate. Students are responding to what they see in the economy”.
Take a quick look at statistics and it becomes easy to understand why young people are feeling the pressure when it comes to finding a job. According to Statistics Canada, employment for youth declined by 10% between 2008-2009. Due to a lack seniority and experience, young workers are often the first to be laid off, which only tightens the financial noose around their necks. Dr. Ciccocioppo says she has been noticing the alarming effects of the difficult situation as more students are falling prey to anxiety disorders.
“We see a lot of high level of anxiety and stress through the door. Certainly, students who present with career counseling concerns are also experiencing stress. They overload themselves with too many responsibilities and they aren’t managing their stress well,” she explains. “Students are feeling this pressure to participate in clubs and opportunities to get involved…and gain skills through that unpaid work experience.”
“People have higher expectations, you can’t just be good, you have to be really good”
Lack of experience
Students need to have previous work experience because future employers don’t want to waste time and money on training. So before students even get the job, they have to already know how to do the job. It’s the contradictory nature of the job market.
“Unfortunately, employers expect students to have work experience before they enter the workplace,” comments Lauren Friese Founder of Talentegg.ca, a job board dedicated to finding students and new graduates employment. “Students need to get in control and get that experience, not only to beef up their resume, but also to learn what they are good at.”
Fortunately, there is a way for students to be exceptional without pushing the limit. Many students believe they will impress potential employers with a lengthy resume, detailing extensive involvement in a number of diverse clubs and activities. In reality, a bloated resume just looks messy. If a student can become more focused and figure out exactly what they want in their professional life, they’ll find they don’t need to join every club or activity they come across.
As Friese explains: “The biggest mistake [students make]…is probably not knowing themselves and not being able to articulate themselves properly”. To correct this issue, Friese advises students to “know [their] story and know what [they] want, and that’s not easy…People really screw themselves over when they list random things [on their resume]”.
Concerns for long term health
Still, the high levels of stress that students experience has some professionals concerned for their long term health.
“If…pressure goes on for a long time…it can produce mental health problems and if you look at the other side, if you don’t sleep or don’t eat properly all those can precipitate mental health problems,” warns Dr. Condra. “…Over the long run, [persistent stress] might lead to mental health problems but that is not the whole group. Some people do learn from it and adjust, and if they do their prognosis is very good.”
For students heading off to school this fall, it might be time to reevaluate whether their mental health is just as important as their job, clubs and academics.
“Some of us need to go further and should look at the environment that contributes to our structures and processes that makes emergence of mental health. I think there is a broader societal problem because I don’t think mental health problems come out of nowhere,” Dr. Condra emphasizes. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on young people to be successful which in turn means that if you are not successful, then you must be a failure and really no one is a failure.”
Though the majority of students certainly feel it is important to be successful, the anxiety produced by school and the ever present pressure to find a meaningful job will always be difficult to contend with. However, it’s not impossible for students to stave off the majority of this stress if they remember to remain focused in their goals and keep their mental health a priority.
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