Factors that can Affect Mental Health

Along with the social determinants of health, other factors may increase our stress level and negatively impact our sense of well-being. This does not necessarily mean, however, that these factors will bring about a mental health condition. This section is here to help you keep in mind how our mental health can sometimes be impacted when we go through these common life experiences.

A Family Crisis

Students may be studying close to home and/or far away from their families. Either way, they may experience family stress. This stress is compounded when a family experiences a crisis. Crises can include parental separation or divorce, the death of a family member, the loss of a job, financial hardship, physical and mental health conditions, 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.

Young Carers

Young carers are children or youth who are helping to care for a sibling, a parent or a grandparent. It’s estimated that approximately 17% of Ontario caregivers are youth.  Young carers often grow up quickly and lose their childhood too early. They can experience feelings of anger, isolation, loneliness and grief. Some suffer from depression or anxiety. Their school and work can suffer because of their added responsibility and they often have limited time to socialize or take part in extracurricular activities.

Health Problems

An increasing number of students are living with health problems during their post-secondary education. 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.

While sometimes a sign of poor prioritization or organization, missing classes, exams, and deadlines 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 faculty member will vary in their 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 to remember that The Ontario Human Rights Commission has released a policy stating explicitly that students should not be required to reveal their diagnosis.((http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-preventing-discrimination-based-mental-health-disabilities-and-addictions..))

Substance use

Alcohol or drug use can cause significant problems for students and the people around them.

You may not always be sure of the cause, but you may notice the impact of a students’ substance use on their academic performance or interactions 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 conditions such as clinical depression, eating disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

If you suspect that a student is using substances, you may wish to speak to them. You may also want to  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 of a student is ensuring accountability for behaviour and class assignments. Because there may be a lag in recognizing the link between the use of the substance and changes in academic performance, it is also not uncommon for students to resist accessing or engaging with health services until significant academic problems have developed. With all of these factors in mind, a teacher can play an important role in ensuring that students can access support and flexibility within a framework of academic rigour and integrity.


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, queer, intersex, and Two-Spirit (LGBTQI2S) people.

Discrimination has direct consequences for mental and physical health. Somebody who has experienced 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 marginalized groups by establishing a zero tolerance policy for such behaviour on campus, and by creating inclusive environments. There are many examples of how you might do this. For example, as a staff member you may choose to contribute to an inclusive environment by hanging posters about equality in your office. Furthermore, if a student has experienced violent hate crime, direct them 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 post-secondary institutions, for example, students might be asked for sexual favours in exchange for beneficial academic decisions or on-campus employment opportunities.  Sexual harassment can be experienced by any gender. 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 campuses. Students who have had these experiences 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 them to the appropriate resources. If the student feels unsafe at any time, refer them to campus security or local police.

If the perpetrator has been identified as a faculty or staff member, refer the student to the appropriate resources on campus to discuss these concerns so that options can be explored 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 their concerns and explore options under the campus’ code of conduct or anti-harassment policy. If the perpetrator is not a member of the campus or has not been identified, speak with the student about whether contacting campus security or the local police would be a good option for them. In addition, the student may benefit from a referral to counselling or other relevant services at your campus. Keep in mind that protocols and policies on sexual harassment exist on all campuses. Starting by referring to your own campus’ policies and protocols is always best practice.

Sexual Assault and Violence

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.” 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 women. When men are sexually assaulted, the perpetrators are usually other men (though sometimes women), including partners, friends, or even peers engaged in ritual pranks and hazing.

Students who are sexually assaulted may require special consideration. Their reactions to this trauma may vary, sometimes manifesting in difficulties with concentration and study, emotional flashbacks, feelings of powerlessness or a lack of control, bouts of sadness, sleeplessness, and nightmares. Depending on the circumstances, they may require time away from academics due to the emotional impact of the incident or because of the efforts required of 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 clothing or substance use) 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 that they trust 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 them. Avoid asking intrusive or judgmental questions (e.g., “Why did you trust him?” or “Couldn’t you scream?”)

All campuses should have a sexual violence policy and protocol in place to provide procedures and resources to individuals/groups who may be directly or indirectly impacted by sexual violence. These policies generally provide clear definitions of sexual assault and sexual violence, set clear standards for reporting and responding to incidents, and establish clear processes for complaints and investigations. Your school’s policy should also include actions that can be taken to maintain confidentiality and protect those who report sexual violence from retaliation or threats.

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. Useful resources may include counselling services, your local sexual assault centre, or your local 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 person experiencing this intrusive attention may become distracted, anxious, tense, sensitive, and jumpy.

Should you learn that a student is being harassed or stalked, you should respond in a non-judgmental way. Let the student know that this kind of harassment is unacceptable and that they are not to blame. Share resources that will help the student take action if they wish to, such as the campus 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; urge them 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. For many students this feeling of stress is transitory and usually dissipates with support over the first few weeks, while for others it is more ongoing. During this period of adjustment, students may experience loneliness, homesickness, and fatigue associated with travel and changes in time zones. In addition, the social supports that they would have accessed at home are missing, which can sometimes lead to a sense of vulnerability. When the process of adjustment to a new country is prolonged and/or is associated with pronounced discomfort and uncertainty, it is 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 they are 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., providing clarification if it is needed). To relieve student anxiety, clearly explain any different academic and social customs and define your role and expectations. If the difficulties with adjustment do not abate over time and there are signs of significant disruptions to the student’s mental well-being, you may want to refer them to seek support from the international student office or a healthcare professional on campus.

Mental Health