Naureen Aqueel

Fall break won’t help mental illness: U of O counselling manager

Posted on: November 6, 2012

Published in The Ward, Nov 6, 2012.

Students at Carleton University are pushing for a fall break to reduce stress levels, but counselling services at the University of Ottawa — which already has a fall reading week — say there’s little evidence the break helps students manage stress.

Donald Martin, manager of counselling and coaching services at U of O, said that since the fall reading week was implemented last year, he hasn’t seen any evidence that students are less stressed.

“I would say that there are probably more students coming to us since (the break),” Martin said. U of O had proposed the reading week in 2009 but its inaugural year was 2011.

In fact, Martin said the break seems to increase stress levels for students later in the term.

“In some cases, it probably increases their stress,” he said. “When they have a week off, they make themselves all sorts of promises to study hard and catch up and all that. Most of them end up spending two or three or four days doing nothing and then they feel guilty about all the things they thought they were going to do and didn’t do.”

Martin said the introduction of the break came at the cost of a tighter exam schedule.

“It makes certainly for a bit more stressful exam period. Because of the extra time off, my understanding is that they shorten the exam period and exams tend to be scheduled closer to each other. So that makes for probably more stress in December.”

November is a busy month for student counselling services, Martin said.

“Last November we had an increase of about 30 per cent in terms of total requests compared to the November of the year before.”

In 2010, the U of O counselling services saw 210 counselling requests from students and in 2011, the requests had risen to 250.

“The main concern in November is that students are feeling overwhelmed with school oftentimes and at other times with life,” Martin said.

Martin added that in November, his office usually sees students who aren’t happy with the mid-term results they have received, and at other times students come in because they are overwhelmed by their workload. And as a crisis intervention centre, requests may relate to a student’s personal or family life, not just school, Martin said.

The Carleton University Students Association and the Carleton Academic Student Government recently presented to the Senate results of a student poll. Carleton students were asked their opinion on the inclusion of a fall break in the academic calendar to occur from Thanksgiving Monday on Oct. 14 to the Friday.

The poll found that about 5,600 students, close to 70 per cent of those who voted, voted in favour of a fall break.

The Graduate Student Association also favours a fall break, but suggested later dates.

Kelly Black, president of the Graduate Student Association, said the organization is asking for the break to be scheduled for the end of October — at the same as the U of O. Black said the association has expressed its concerns about the timing to the Senate and are waiting for them to take a decision.

“One, it would make a lot of sense to have the same schedule as the University of Ottawa so that courses would sync up because many students at Carleton and the U of O take courses at both institutions,” Black said.

Black also cited student mental health concerns.

“It makes sense to have it sort of at the height of all that (stress), closer towards the middle of the term rather than closer to the beginning,” Black said. “If we have a break at the end of October, hopefully it will give students a much-needed break from assignments and give them time to catch up on assignments and time to spend with friends and family.”

Martin said that although being a student is a stressful activity, his experience has been that students are generally a “resilient bunch.”

“I don’t think that students are necessarily, more or less than other groups of the population, affected by mental health problems,” Martin said. “I think that mental health issues happen everywhere. It is just that when you bring students in a certain context where they have to produce a lot of work, study hard and if they have associated pressures, sometimes it can create situations where they are overwhelmed.”

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