Factors that can Affect Mental Health

As previously outlined, the difference between mental health and mental illness needs to be kept in mind here. These are factors that may bring about stress or pressure, potentially leading to an individual moving away from 'Healthy' on the mental health continuum. This does not necessarily mean however, that the factors will bring about a mental illness. This section is here to help you keep in mind how the mental health of someone experiencing these factors may be affected by them.

A Family Crisis

Studying far away from family can be stressful for some students. This stress is compounded when a family experiences a crisis. Crises can include parental separation or divorce, death of a family member, the loss of a job, financial hardship, physical and mental illness, legal trouble, or anything that disrupts a family's normal functioning. Academic performance can suffer when a student's attention is divided between responsibilities to family and school.

Health Problems

An increasing number of students are living with health problems during their university educations. These health issues may be chronic, acute, or recurring. Individual responses to any given health problem may also vary tremendously. A health challenge that is completely manageable for one student could be overwhelming for another.

Regardless of the severity of the illness or condition, it may cause a disruption in the student's academic life. Something as common as an intestinal bug or seasonal flu can drain a student's energy for more than a week. Other conditions—such as diabetes, migraines, or mononucleosis—may require longer-term adjustments, supports, or accommodations.

Missing classes, exams, and deadlines, while sometimes a sign of poor prioritization or organization, can also be a sign of a serious health problem. When illnesses (or claims of illnesses) interfere with academics, faculty and students must resolve concerns with appropriate honesty and trust. Each of you will vary in your approach to talking with students about physical or mental health concerns, just as students will vary in their degree of openness about these issues. It is important for everyone to understand that the student has a right to keep health information confidential and should never be asked to provide specific diagnostic or treatment information.

Substance Abuse

Alcohol or drug abuse can cause significant problems for students and the people around them. Alcohol is the most commonly used substance among students and accounts for the majority of substance-related problems on campus. Students who abuse prescription drugs are significantly more likely to also abuse alcohol and other drugs.

You may not always be sure of the cause, but you may notice the impact of students' substance use on academic performance or on their interaction with other students.

Many people with substance abuse problems do not recognize the link between their substance use and changes/deterioration in their behaviour. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that substance problems often occur with other mental health problems such as clinical depression, eating disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

If you suspect that a student is abusing substances, you may wish to speak to her/him. See Action Step 2: Respond for examples of strategies for opening such a dialogue. Remember to focus the conversation on what you have observed and link this to an expression of concern or an offer to help (e.g., “I notice your last paper was not up to your usual standard; is everything ok"?).

Creating an open and non-judgmental environment does not preclude ordinary consequences for poor performance or misconduct. Part of being supportive for a student is ensuring accountability for behaviour and class assignments. In some ways, the effects of substance abuse problems can be fleeting and difficult to remember. A poor grade is a tangible reminder of the impact that substance abuse can have on a student's goals. Because there may be a lag in recognizing the link between the use of the substance and changes in academic performance, it is not uncommon for students to resist accessing or engaging with health services until significant academic problems have developed.


Discrimination is the outward manifestation of stereotypes or other preconceptions, rather than fair evaluations of individual merits, capacities, and circumstances. It results in the exclusion of some people from various social, political, or economic activities, and imposes undue burdens on them. The attitudes leading to discrimination include the so-called “isms," such as racism, sexism, and ageism.

Discrimination can be covert or systemic, as when instructors fail to evaluate students fairly because of a bias against their political, cultural, or religious beliefs. Discrimination can also manifest quite openly, in the form of derogatory language, threats, or violence and hate crimes. According to Statistics Canada, the groups that are most often targets of discrimination include women; racial/ethnic minorities; people with disabilities; and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Two-Spirit, and Queer (LGBTQ) persons.

Discrimination has direct consequences for mental and physical health. A victim of discrimination may experience depression, anxiety, an inability to concentrate, high-blood pressure, low self-esteem, listlessness, insomnia, headaches, and backaches. Moreover, people that report experiencing infrequent to frequent discrimination are more likely to underutilize needed medical services.

You can help mitigate discrimination against minority groups by setting a zero tolerance policy for such behaviour on campus, and by establishing an inclusive environment. If a student believes that s/he is a victim of a violent hate crime, direct her/him to call campus security and/or other local police agencies.

Sexual Harassment

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment includes “unwelcome sexual contact and remarks," such as “leering, inappropriate staring, unwelcome demands for dates, requests for sexual favours and displays of sexually offensive pictures or graffiti." At universities, for example, students might be asked for sexual favours in exchange for beneficial academic decisions or on-campus employment opportunities. Both men and women can be perpetrators of sexual harassment, and their targets can be members of the same or opposite sex. A single incident can be considered harassment, though it is often pervasive and persistent.

Students may experience sexual harassment in a variety of contexts, including in academic settings, in residences, as student employees, or outside of university campuses. They may experience feelings of shame, anger, fear, and denial, and might display signs of distress. These students will benefit from a caring response that allows them to exert some control over their lives. If you become aware that a student is experiencing sexual harassment you should refer her/him to the appropriate resources. If the student feels unsafe at any time, refer her/him to campus security or local police.

If the perpetrator is a faculty or staff member, and s/he has been identified, refer the student to the appropriate resources on campus to discuss these concerns and explore options to end the behaviour. If the perpetrator is another student, refer the targeted student to a judicial administrator or Human Rights and/or Equity Office to discuss her/his concerns and explore options under the university code of conduct or anti-harassment policy. If the perpetrator is not a member of the university or has not been identified, contact campus security or local police. In addition, the student may benefit from a referral to counselling or other relevant services at your university.

Sexual Assault

According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, “research shows that between 15 and 25 percent of college and university-aged women will experience some form of sexual assault during their academic career [sic])." In most cases, the perpetrator is known to the person who has experienced sexual assault, and may be a fellow student, someone with a romantic interest, a research assistant, teaching assistant, a friend, etc.

In 90 percent of sexual assaults on university campuses, male perpetrators have attacked females. When men are sexually assaulted, the perpetrators are usually other men (but sometimes women), including partners, friends, or even peers engaged in ritual pranks and hazing.

Students who are sexually assaulted require special consideration. Their reactions to this trauma may vary, manifesting in difficulties with concentration and study, emotional flashbacks, feelings of powerlessness or a lack of control, bouts of sadness, and sleeplessness and nightmares. Depending on the circumstances, they may require time away from academics due to the emotional impact of the incident or the judicial or criminal action. It is not uncommon for people who have experienced sexual assault to remain silent about sexual assault. Most do not press charges, fearing that their behaviour (such as drinking or dancing) or their judgment at the time of the assault will be criticized.

If a student discloses an assault to you, a sensitive response can facilitate the healing process. Such disclosures should always be believed and taken seriously. If a student tells you about an incident, it shows s/he trusts you. You should acknowledge the student's courage and offer support. Open-ended questions such as “How can I help?" or “What do you need?" will help the student feel more comfortable talking and will convey a sense of support to her/him. Avoid asking intrusive or judgmental questions (e.g., “Why did you trust him?" or “Couldn't you scream?")

Students who have experienced an assault may need to hear about on-campus and local resources that can help them deal with the psychological, emotional, and possible legal consequences of being assaulted. Resources include counselling services, the local sexual assault centre, and the victim assistance service.

Intrusive Contact (Stalking)

Some young adults find themselves the targets of unwanted, intrusive contact by others. These behaviours constitute harassment, and may provoke fear and anxiety. Unwanted contact may include following someone (with or without that person's knowledge), secretly waiting for the person to arrive home, making inappropriate phone calls, obsessively communicating either directly or through friends, and communicating directly with increasing frequency and intensity. In some cases, the behaviours can include threats and intimidation. The victim of this intrusive attention can become distracted, anxious, tense, sensitive, and jumpy.

Should you learn that a student is being harassed or stalked, you can make suggestions in a non-judgmental way. Let the student know that this kind of harassment is unacceptable and that s/he is not to blame. Encourage the student to take action by contacting counselling services, the Human Rights Office, or campus security/local police. You can provide support by checking in with the student periodically and by understanding that this kind of intrusion can be anxiety-provoking and distracting, making it difficult to focus on studies. If the student expresses fear, the situation may be dangerous; strongly urge her/him to consult campus security or local police immediately.

Adjusting to a New Country

The process of adjusting to a new country and academic environment is typically associated with some degree of stress; this is transitory and usually dissipates with support over the first few weeks. During this period of adjustment, students may experience loneliness, homesickness, and fatigue associated with travel and changes in time zones. As well, their customary social supports (which they would use at home) are missing, leading to a sense of vulnerability. Occasionally, this process is prolonged and/or is associated with pronounced discomfort and uncertainty, sometimes referred to as “culture shock." Students experiencing culture shock may become easily confused, disoriented, and hesitant to ask for help because of the sense of anxiety and distress that they are experiencing.

Signs of culture shock may include:

  • Prolonged sadness, loneliness, melancholy, and tearfulness
  • Preoccupation with health
  • Aches, pains, and allergies
  • Problems with sleep (sleeping too much or too little)
  • Pronounced difficulty with “getting going" in the morning
  • Feeling vulnerable, powerless
  • Uncharacteristic anger, irritability, resentment, or social withdrawal; difficulties with emotional regulation
  • Excessive enthusiasm about quickly absorbing all knowledge about a new culture or country
  • Inability to work, study, or solve simple problems
  • Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity, lack of confidence
  • Intense preoccupations, such as over-cleanliness
  • Marital or relationship problems
  • Overeating or loss of appetite

Note: While most people moving to a new country or culture experience some stress as they adjust, culture shock is marked by a significant disruption to a student's functioning.

You can assist a student in adapting to a new cultural environment by helping to ensure that s/he is welcomed and supported. Research demonstrates that international students who feel connected to, and welcomed at, their institutions experience less stress in their adjustment to new environments. You can also help by being patient in communicating with the student (e.g., enunciating clearly and providing clarification if it is needed). To relieve student anxiety, clearly explain any different academic and social customs, and define your role and expectations. When the difficulties with adjustment do not abate over time, and there are signs of significant disruptions to the student's mental well-being, professional consultation is recommended.

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