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Young people between 15 and 24 face a higher risk of developing a mental illness than any other age group, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Seventy per cent of mental illnesses begin in adolescence and young adulthood, which often coincides with attending high school, college or university. That’s why it’s important for academic institutions to offer mental health programs, but the demand often outweighs the supply, says University of Guelph psychology professor Margaret Lumley.

“We know that in the university climate, the demand for mental health services has increased exponentially over the past decade,” she says. “Universities across Canada have been struggling to meet that demand.”

Lumley says today’s students are more aware of mental health issues, how to help someone in distress and how to seek help themselves, but “there’s still a long way to go.” Faculty also receive guidance on how to identify and support students with mental health concerns.

“I think there’s reason to be hopeful,” says Lumley. “I think there have been shifts in the right direction.” She says U of G fosters a climate of acceptance, sensitivity and support, offering a variety of programs for people with mental illness.

Those include on-campus resources such as the Student Support Network, Counselling Services, and the Couple and Family Therapy Centre. Employees also have access to mental health services through the Employee Assistance Plan.

Despite national awareness campaigns such as Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, which has raised more than $6 million for mental health initiatives, the stigma of mental illness still exists, says Lumley.

Stigma comes in two forms: internal and external. Students may be reluctant to get help because of their own beliefs about having a mental illness and how others will perceive them. “We know the higher the levels of internalized stigma that youth with mental illness possess, the less likely they are to reach out and ask for help or access services,” says Lumley. They’re also more likely to feel isolated and avoid confiding in friends and family.

Other barriers to seeking help include affordability of mental health services, which often depends on health insurance coverage. Geography is another factor. Small towns and rural communities are underserviced and have long wait lists. Some cultural backgrounds may be less open to sharing personal problems or accessing mental health services.

In her work with young people, Lumley encourages them to get engaged in their interests and passions to enhance their wellness and build their resiliency to better cope with stressors. “Reorient your mind to think about the kinds of stressors in your day in a different way.” This approach can help prevent “downward spiral” thinking. Being grateful for positive experiences, no matter how small, can also help reverse negative thoughts.

In a paper she co-authored with psychology professor Stephen Lewis, they looked at teen depression groups on Facebook and found that teens used these forums to share their experiences, find support and online resources. These groups also provided users with a sense of belonging and a safe space to talk about their feelings.

Lumley advises young people with mental illness to focus on their strengths and resiliency. “Despite the difficulties they may have endured, they have so much to offer, sometimes because of those experiences.”