'If a brain is troubled, it doesn’t learn'

FaceForward: The People and Stories of Memorial
By Laura Barron | April 11, 2014

As student health is a major factor in determining academic success, the Student Health Centre, which includes Student Health, Counselling Centres and the Wellness Program, has been gathering data to inform planning for supports and services to help students succeed.

The top five reasons Memorial students miss classes and are unable to complete courses and have incomplete grades are stress, anxiety, sleep issues, colds and flus and work.

In the spring of 2013, a random sample of 5,000 Memorial students were asked to participate in the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) survey, which captured student behaviours and attitudes on a broad range of health issues, ranging from nutrition and exercise, drugs and alcohol, personal safety, sexual health, stress, depression and anxiety.

The survey revealed that Memorial’s student health issues are comparable to those of other Canadian universities, though it appears that Canadian students are experiencing more stress than their American counterparts. Student stress levels in Newfoundland are at 35 per cent, while the numbers across Canada and the U.S. are 38 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively.

Memorial’s students reported a higher awareness of health education and a greater sense of safety on campus, and they reported less illicit drug use and less physical sexual violence, compared to their national and international counterparts. While 60 per cent of students at Memorial reported receiving information about depression, the numbers are only 50 per cent across Canada and the U.S.

“We are ahead of the curve with our health education efforts,” said Dr. Lee, chief physician, Student Health Centre. “The Counselling Centre is very active in online and in-person outreach. Students are aware of it, so there is less stigma and they are more willing to come and get help. We try to make that as easy as possible. Once you reduce stigma and you raise awareness, then people who were suffering in silence will seek help. More people will accept the diagnosis and start treatment.”

With a team of six people, Memorial’s Student Health Centre sees 18,000 visits per year. The most frequent reasons for clinical visits are depression and anxiety. The survey showed that Memorial’s students’ rates of common mental illnesses are comparable to elsewhere, with anxiety at 14 per cent, panic disorder at seven per cent, and depression at 10 per cent. Dr. Lee explains that the combination of survey data with clinical reports is crucial to the creation of informed student health plans.

“When we see what the issues are, that helps to define what our focus of our in-house education will be – helping us to ensure we are experts and up-to-date on the management of those conditions. By understanding the scope of these problems, we can do more to accommodate students in their university careers and in their lives.”

Dr. Lee stresses that Memorial University is serious about the health of its students, and emphasizes the importance of considering health and wellness as major factors in academic success.

“If a brain is troubled, it doesn’t learn, so we have to take care of the brains here, and the emotions and the bodies. This university is serious about health and is gathering data about it, in order to plan health and wellness services. We are engaging with students to try and find a systemic, holistic approach to dealing with student health, and especially with student mental health.”

There are ongoing discussions of developing a comprehensive mental health strategy with a pan-university committee looking at university services and supports in this area, according to Dr. Lee.

“The idea is that mental health is everybody’s responsibility, from early detection to creating a supportive environment. It really is a group effort. We are trying to create a community, and we are trying to create community responsibility.”

Memorial is among 33 universities in Canada, and more than 100 universities in the U.S., that participated in the 2013 NCHA survey. Dr. Lee, Missy Power, a nurse at the Student Health Centre, and Kelly Neville, wellness co-ordinator with the Counselling Centre, co-ordinated Memorial’s participation in the NCHA survey.

Dr. Lee is expressing his thanks to the students who took the time to do the survey, and explains that the goal of collecting this data is to make a positive difference in the lives of students at Memorial.

“The message to students is that we are listening to you. We are committed to your health and well-being, and we will do what we can, as an entire university, to make the experience at Memorial conducive to health and well-being.”

Currently, there are plans to conduct this survey every two to three years. The full results of the 2013 survey can be viewed here.


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