Self-harm stats put campuses in the red

Over six per cent of post-secondary students self-harm, says a new report

Mental health professionals are alarmed over self-harm on campus after a recent report revealed that 6.6 per cent of post-secondary students had intentionally hurt themselves in the last year and up to 20 per cent had done so at some point in their lives.

“The statistic is unsettling,” said Cliff Robinson, head of counselling at TRU. “But the thing that’s most sad for me is that for some people it’s easier to cut than it is to talk about their own mental health condition, and that speaks to stigma about mental health and mental illness.”

A new report  by the Mental Health Commission of Canada measures 13 indicators of mental illness, including post-secondary student self-harm. (Alexis Stockford/The Omega)

A new report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada measures 13 indicators of mental illness, including post-secondary student self-harm. (Alexis Stockford/The Omega)

Released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) last week, the report measured 13 indicators of Canadian mental health, including self-harm among college students. Other indicators include suicide rates, anxiety among school-aged youth, anxiety or mood disorders in seniors and hospital readmissions within 30 days due to mental illness.

Self-harm among post-secondary students was one of four indicators marked red for “significant concerns.” Another eight came in yellow for “some concerns” or uncertain results. Only one indicator measured in the green.

The report is part one of what the MHCC calls the “most comprehensive set of indicators for mental health illness in Canada,” measuring 63 different indicators of mental ill- ness. Results on the other 50 indicators will be released in April.

Self-harm and TRU

In many cases, Robinson said, students who self-harm began in high school and the behaviour carried over when they entered university. The Canadian Mental Health Association has estimated one to four per cent of all people in B.C. self-harm and 14 to 39 per cent of those are adolescents.

“It’s generally a period of life where emotions are high,” said Kerri McLean, manager for Mental Health and Substance Use Services. “They’re intense … I think as a result of that individuals aren’t quite sure or don’t have the healthy coping strategies that older adults may have if they’re in a more secure, stable environment.”

Robinson said TRU counselling does see a number of self-harm cases but not enough to be consistent with the MHCC report. For him, that raises concern that there may be TRU students that are self-harming but have not reached out to counselling.

About 10 per cent of students use TRU’s counselling service and about two-thirds of that workload is due to student mental health conditions.

Dealing with stigma

According to Robinson, only a small percentage of self-harm cases are actually suicidal. People may also self-harm as a way to deal with personal upheaval, anxiety, depression or as a coping mechanism for emotional distress. He also said not everyone who admits to self-harm is hospitalized.

“We’re not going to overreact on your behalf,” Robinson said. “Our job is to figure out what it’s going to take for you to deal with whatever mental health thing you’ve got going on, and in a vast majority of cases, you’re going to come in and talk to us and [the rest of the time] it’s business as usual.”

Other options available from TRU counselling include: assessment by the campus doctor, counselling sessions or day-to-day interventions such as interactions with professors or extracurricular clubs.

If intervention is necessary, students may be referred to Interior Health. According to McLean, each patient is assessed by symptoms, mental health history and history of abuse (substance or otherwise) or trauma. Depending on that assessment, patients are streamed to outpatient services, single and group therapy, crisis intervention, connection to a life-skills manager or long-term care.

“They may have self-harming behaviours, but you need to have a much fuller understanding of what might be driving those behaviours and then refer them properly,” McLean said.

She added that Mental Health and Substance Use Services has a unique partnership with the university. TRU is one of the few campuses to have a regional health worker attached to the counselling department. McLean said in cases where intervention might be needed, the worker can then streamline the referral to Interior Health.

Long road ahead

Robinson said he is excited to read the full report come April, but knows it will highlight how much work is ahead for mental health professionals like him.

“We will no longer have the excuse of ‘we didn’t know,’ or that excuse that I often use, which is ‘I can only speak to my own clients,’” he said. “Now I kind of know what my clients are saying in the context of people in general, and we’ve got to put some money and resources and strategic planning into where the problems are.”