The Impact of Mental Health Problems in the Community College Student Population

Student mental health in higher education a campus-wide challenge

From depression to psychotic disorders, mental health issues among young people are a reality, and postsecondary education is feeling the impact.  The challenge for Ontario’s colleges and universities is how to ensure that these students are given the support that they need to successfully complete their academic programs.

Commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), a study at 15 Ontario colleges representing all four geographic regions in the province finds that more than 60 per cent of students who accessed college counselling and disability services reported having a diagnosis of one or more mental disorders. The study authors say the situation should be “owned by the college as a whole and not just by the counselling, disability or medical centres.”

Project description

Part of a series of studies on student services commissioned by HEQCO, The Impact of Mental Health Problems in the Community College Student Population compiled survey data from 15 of Ontario’s 24 community colleges during the 2009-10 academic year to determine the frequency of mental illness, mental health problems and academic challenges in students using campus-based counselling and disability centres. The data were based on surveys from nearly 2,000 students who visited campus mental health service centres. Based on the findings, the report explores implications for college staff training and practice, and suggests directions for future research.


Of those students having a diagnosis of one or more mental health disorders, mood and/or anxiety issues were most prevalent.  The most cited problems were feeling overwhelmed, sad or anxious and relationship issues. More than two-thirds of students exhibited academic challenges, most frequently difficulty in maintaining concentration. Few students attended more than two appointments at disability or counselling centres and the report notes that the numbers cited in the study are likely understated as only students who chose to access campus services could be documented.  Research also suggests that only a small percentage of students actually seek treatment.

Recommendations/policy implications

Given that students with mental illness engage in a variety of campus activities and services, the entire institution can be affected and could benefit from increased understanding of how to support these students, the authors say.  They suggest that the survey be administered on an annual basis to track provincial trends, and that universities should participate to stimulate collaboration in training and research. The authors of the study also recommend that annual reviews of qualifications and professional development for counselling and disability staff should be conducted, with an emphasis on anxiety and mood disorders, and professional development should be extended to administration, faculty and support staff. Faculty would particularly benefit from professional development given the high percentage of students reporting academic challenges. More research on the links between specific academic challenges and mental disorder symptoms is also suggested.

This research study was conducted by Alana Holmes, Robert Silvestri and Maria Kostakos of Cambrian College.​