Shift to post-secondary life is massive and under-discussed, therapist and students say

"It's like trying to explain to someone who's having a baby what it's like."

Quiana Pettiford studying in a Starbucks cafe
First year York University student, Quiana Pettiford, says her mental health has worsened since she started university. (Marva Trim/Toronto Observer) 

Post-secondary students’ mental health is often affected by the pressures they face when entering a new environment without a ‘hand to hold,’ a York University student says. 

“Since I’ve attended post-secondary it’s been harder for me to keep up with my grades. With working a job while having full time studies, I feel like there is never enough time in the day to do everything I need,” Quiana Pettiford, a first-year chemistry student at York, said. 

Her experience in the first few months of university was an adjustment period into a lifestyle of independence, even with prior knowledge of what to expect, the 18-year-old said.

She’s currently based in Toronto, and said her mental health has never been as strong as it should be, and constant overthinking now makes it worse.

Difficult at the start

Mental health has been an ongoing concern for youth in and out of the school system. Embarking on a new and uncertain phase of their lives adds another layer onto their already full plates.

A mental health study by Ontario Universities found the number of students on college and university campuses with mental health disabilities has more than doubled over the past five years. About 75 per cent of the mental health problems noticeably appear before the age of 24.

Deborah Epstein, a registered psychotherapist in Toronto, Ont., has had more than 20 years of experience with pre- and post-secondary students who struggle with their mental health. She said she sees often students with mental-health issues when they start their post-secondary lives.

“They’re really mixed, but I would say probably in the earlier stages of their academic careers … first and second year probably is more the bulk,” Epstein said. 

Epstein noticed a commonality with the youth that she works with. She said “anxiety and depression are comorbid” in her office, so students are struggling with both. A Statistics Canada Health Report found that common mental disorders — such as major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders — rank high among the major causes of disease burden.

“I think the transition into university is massive and unexpected even though people know that it’s a big transition,” Epstein said. “It’s a bit like trying to explain to someone who’s about to have a baby what having a baby is like.”

Change of environment affects mental health

“Personally, I know it affects a lot of my friends and family around ages 18 to 25 who are in school,” Shanelle Stewart, a third-year biology student, said.

Shanelle Stewart, 21, is a student living on-campus at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. Stewart knows how hard it can be when you’re considered an adult, yet have little to no idea what you’re really doing. 

The change of environment increases mental-health issues, she says, and so it’s understandable how her peers are feeling.

Sometimes students just need to know that there are ways to combat the mental health struggles and it’s important to not face them alone. Change can come from getting in front of the issue before it increases.

“My advice would be you don’t have to do it alone, there’s lots of support out there if you reach out for it. There’s no shame in asking for it,” Epstein said.

If you are in crisis, help is available. If you’re in immediate danger or need urgent medical support, call 911.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566. Support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For residents of Quebec, call 1-866-277-3553 or visit

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Posted: Feb 8 2023 9:00 am
Filed under: Mental Health News