When Frosh Week Ends: balancing school, social activities and mental health

(Dasha Zolota)

Making the transition from frosh week to academic life can be a burden on mental health. (Dasha Zolota / Special to the Ryersonian)

A few steps from the entrance of his residence building, Ryan Gaynor sits surrounded by a group of friends. Three weeks ago, the first-year media production student and his parents made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Walkerton, Ont., to move his belongings into a single dorm room on campus. The days that followed were a blur of new faces, dorm parties and frosh events.

“I wasn’t worried about living on my own; I got to know my floormates quickly and made friends,” Gaynor says.

“I’ve already reached out to someone in my program and we’re in the process of working on a short film together. There are tons of people here who are like-minded.”

At 18, Gaynor has traded countryside life for the bustle of downtown Toronto — and he’s enjoyed a remarkably smooth transition. Between free concerts, blasting EDM and the roar of student chants, frosh week can undeniably be a good time. It’s a chance to make new friends and blow off steam before academic life officially begins.

But the transition from beer pong to the classroom isn’t always an easy one. While Gaynor’s experience speaks to the positive elements of being at frosh, managing social and academic life can be challenging. And the pressures of fitting in can make it tough for students to admit when they’re having trouble.

“Frosh week can be a fun way to connect students to their peers. However, it can be extremely difficult for students to break away from the herd mentality if they feel uncomfortable,” says Ann Marie Mac Donald, executive director of the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario.

“On the surface, no one wants to show that they’re nervous or stressed. If students don’t have the support system or a constructive outlet to deal with these issues, it can lead to serious implications.”

The pressure of fitting in and navigating through program requirements can be exciting, overwhelming, and in some cases, deadly. Suicide rates among Ontario post-secondary students are on the rise, according to a 2013 study co-ordinated by the Canadian Organization of University College Health.

The study, which surveyed more than 30,000 university students nationwide, found that nearly one in 10 students had seriously considered suicide within the past year. In Ontario, 59 per cent of students cited academic demands as being “traumatic or very difficult to handle.” When left unaddressed, academic and social stresses can become a mental issue even for students in upper years.

Organizations like the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario offer medical and non-medical models of therapy to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental illness. Self-inflicted shame and denial are among the biggest barriers faced by students — especially first years in the midst of a fast-paced transition, according to Mac Donald. Students suffering from anxiety and depression often become victims of self-stigma, dismissing and minimizing their problems instead of seeking help.

“They convince themselves that they need to buck up or get over what they’re experiencing because everyone seems fine,” Mac Donald said. “This is why it is so crucial for students to align themselves with the right group of people as early as possible.”

First-year nutrition student Deanna Alexandridis has been interested in health and wellness since high school, and Ryerson was her first choice to pursue an education in nutrition. Since she knew she would not be living in residence, frosh week was an especially important way to meet new friends. But she wanted to make sure that her friends shared her priorities.

“Overall, it was a good experience, but most people stopped coming during the day and would only come to night events,” Alexandridis says.

“Some people took partying or drinking too far. I’m social and friendly, but I’m not a huge partier … I really want to make sure my grades are good. I think it’s important to have friends that are here for the same reasons.”

Maintaining grade requirements can be especially difficult for students in competitive programs. Karl de la Cruz, a second-year international economics student, estimates that 60 per cent of his classmates failed their first year program requirements — or dropped out altogether. He says many had a hard time shedding the frosh week mentality.

“I loved frosh and everyone I know that didn’t do it regretted it immediately,” de la Cruz says. “But, I think the problem is that there are lots of people who partied hard the first couple of weeks and didn’t get out of that zone. It’s like they got caught up in the social aspect of school and forgot about why they were here in the first place.”

De la Cruz joined the Ryerson Students’ Union after his first year. He says getting involved with the student body has been a positive, productive way to combine academic and social life.

“Tons of students in first year think, ‘OK, this isn’t too hard, I remember doing this in high school.’ Or, ‘This assignment isn’t due for a little while — there isn’t too much to do in the course anyway.’ They don’t manage their time and end up slacking off,” de la Cruz says.

There are a number of resources available to students having trouble finding balance between social, academic and any other aspect of life, and many have been seeking assistance. This growing demand for mental health services has put pressure on Ryerson University administration to provide more support for its students.

According to Juannittah Kamera, Ryerson’s Health Promotion program co-ordinator, the task of providing students with mental health support is intended to be shared with services outside of campus. Counselling services at the university are not designed to provide long-term care. Instead, they connect students to the support they will need.

“If students are from Toronto, then chances are that they already have a counsellor or doctor set up,” says Kamera. “We don’t want to interfere with the care they already have.

“If students don’t have a professional to speak to, then in most cases they’ve come to us during a period of great stress. We help through that stage, or we guide them to the help they need.”

Mental health support at Ryerson is not limited to therapy services. Social clubs, sports teams and initiatives led by different campus organizations and programs play an important role in preventive care.

“When the Learning Centre gives a seminar on APA or MLA formatting, or when resumé clinics are offered, these can also be considered as mental health support,” Kamera points out.

“When students are given options to manage their studies better, this reduces stress. We want to find the factors that cause stress and eventually lead to anxiety or depression, and help students focus on what’s important.”

The buzz of Ryerson’s Week of Welcome has died down, and free Red Bull is exceptionally harder to come by, but conversations around mental health remain necessary year-round.

“This is a 24-7, 365 days a year kind of issue,” says Mac Donald. “For students, if it isn’t the pressure of frosh week, then it’ll be the pressure of midterms and exams. Students of any age need to feel like they are (worthy of) having their problems acknowledged.”

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Sept. 10, 2014.

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