We know that many students today are uncertain about what career prospects await them after graduation, yet how many of us tend to think of career preparation as a mental health issue?
In September, the Ontario University and College Health Association (OUCHA) released results from a survey of more than 25,000 students that suggests postsecondary institutions have not yet figured out how to adequately address the needs and concerns of their students. Almost half of survey participants (42.9%) indicated that stress had negatively impacted their academic performance, meaning that they received a lower grade, dropped a course, or were unable to complete assignments. Stress is ever-present, but the survey also indicated high response rates for sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression, and showed that suicide attempts had risen since the last survey in 2013. Despite increased awareness, outreach, and campus services, results are clearly moving in the wrong direction.
Millennials are the first generation expected to fare worse than their parents in earnings and life expectancy. Combined with news reports of precarious employment, unemployment, low wages, and an average debt of more than $25,000, it isn’t surprising that students feel overwhelmed. Aside from the expected concerns about their studies, top stress triggers include difficulty with sleep, finances, and career-related issues. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that universities are not handling as effectively as they could, because the burden for mental health is too often shifted to campus counselling centres, where wait times exacerbate the problem. Under these policies, higher education is only addressing the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem.
Take financial services as an example. A 2015 American study found a direct correlation between student debt and mental health. The more money a student borrowed, the likelier they were to experience poor mental health. The situation is the same in Canada. Universities like York and the University of Toronto law faculty are planning financial literacy campaigns and wellness strategies to address debt stress. These are positive steps in the right direction, but they don’t go far enough because they don’t account for the extent to which career-related anxieties contribute to debt-related stress. To truly make an impact, universities need to design and implement ongoing interventions over the course of programs that address how these factors are connected in the minds of students.
One project charting the overlap between career preparation and mental health is a multi-year study that Ryerson University performed with its nursing curriculum. The study was designed to examine students’ career resilience by following two cohorts over the course of the program and into their careers after graduation. Participants in the control group did not receive career intervention beyond speaking with faculty members or accessing career services available on campus, while the second group had the opportunity to attend six different sessions specific to their year of study over the course of the program.
Results showed that students who did not receive additional guidance or skills lacked the ability to set appropriate goals, find information, or take action with respect to their careers. They were more anxious and stressed, whereas students who participated in the training sessions showed greater career resilience and a stronger ability to shape their academic experience to reflect their career goals. In short, the more students learned about themselves, their goals, and the necessary requirements, the more confident, empowered, and proactive they became in their education and careers.
In an age when student demand for mental health services is threatening to outstrip available resources, it’s crucial to look at what role career anxieties (and all of the other anxieties connected to them) play in students’ wellbeing. In this sense at least, it’s not a stretch to say that career preparation is a student wellness issue as much as it is a vocational one.
Hiring more mental health counsellors will not fix the problem. It will, potentially, reduce wait times, but it’s not a standalone solution. Outreach and literacy campaigns raise awareness, but as the Ryerson study shows, the greatest impact comes from repeated and regular training sessions. To do this, universities need financial counsellors and career development professionals who can educate students, providing them with the skills they need to cope with stressors they experience from debt and career planning. Better yet, institutions can incorporate career education into the programs themselves and provide students with the skills and knowledge to influence the direction of their academic progress, allowing them to gain experience in areas that reflect their choices, interests, and values within their field of study.
The choice is simple—triage the mental health issues on campus or take a holistic approach: educate the student and give them the confidence, tools, and resources to reduce instances of crisis before they happen. Twenty-five thousand undergraduate and graduate students have spoken, and they need help. It’s time to listen.