Post-secondary students across the country are settling back into classes this week, but 21-year-old Ji Youn Kim is not. A former student at the University of British Columbia, Kim dropped out of school last spring after years of struggling with mental health issues and academic related anxiety.
For Kim, dropping out was the only choice she had. Her anxiety was so bad, she could not get out of bed on the day of exams.
“It was harder for me because I was surrounded by such successful people in academia,” Kim tells Daily Hive.
While university is often seen as a place for young people to experience personal growth, the pressure and stress associated with academics and campus life can also send students on a downward spiral when it comes to their mental health wellbeing.
‘I felt so much tremendous shame’
Kim was not expecting any of this to happen when she entered as a first-year student at UBC in 2013. She was accepted into a competitive science program and juggled classes, assignments, exams, and weekly student government meetings. It was a draining experience and eventually Kim realized she was not as passionate about the academic program she was enrolled in.
In second-year, Kim transferred to another program, got involved in even more extracurricular activities, and worked a part-time job on the side in order to prove to herself and others that she was not a failure.
“It was kind of a way to validate myself,” Kim said. “I think there is a glorification of overworking at UBC and particularly among student leaders…and I kind of got involved in all these things because my academic pride was affected in (first year).”
By the second semester, Kim broke down and burnt out. She decided to step away from school altogether and took several months off. After her hiatus, she felt ready to tackle school once again.
Kim thought it was best to cut down on her course load and extracurricular activities. She was enrolled in two courses but still suffered from severe panic and attacks, visual hallucinations, and even attempted suicide.
To make matters worse, Kim saw her friend group excelling, while she struggled with her two courses.
“The fact that my friends were doing so successfully in school, whereas I could not get out of bed for (class)… I felt so much tremendous shame ,” she said.
‘This is not worth it’
During this time, Kim was continuously seeking support from on-campus mental health resources but she soon realized that she could no longer endure the stress of school.
“I just felt crazy…and basically, the conclusion was this is not worth it,” she said.
In April 2016, after writing her last exam for the semester, Kim decided that she was going to drop out of school. It was an extremely tough decision. Kim comes from an immigrant Korean family with high expectations. She also set the bar tremendously high for herself to succeed at UBC but she knew she had to do what was right for her.
She came home and got on her laptop and poured her personal truth into a blog post titled “I’m dropping out of school.” She shared the post on Facebook and it received hundreds of re-shares.
Kim was not expecting this kind of reaction. Strangers started reaching out to her, sharing their own university-related mental health challenges and that is when she knew was not alone.
Students faced with challenges
The reality is, there are thousands of students in Canada are struggling to cope with mental health issues.
In 2013, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) published mental health data collected from over 30,0000 students from over 30 campuses.
According to the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) survey, 53% of students said they felt hopeless, 56% said they felt overwhelming anxiety, 37.5% said they were so depressed it was hard to function, and 9.5% said they had seriously considered suicide within the past school year.
Lyndsay Cotterall, a clinical counsellor at Simon Fraser University, says students are faced with many hurdles that can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression.
“Students are taking on a lot of new challenges they are learning to learn. They are having to adjust to a new lifestyle situation, potentially living on campus or living away from home, so there is a multitude of development challenges that happen at this stage,” she tells Daily Hive.
Building a support system
For Cotterall, one of the most important things students can do for their mental health wellbeing is having a supportive group of peers they can reach out to.
“I definitely would say building a positive support system right out the gate is a really important thing,” she said.
Kim agrees that having people to reach out to is crucial.
“Honestly, just talk to someone,” she said. “That’s step one, acknowledging you have a problem and telling someone about it (and) reaching out.”
Now that she is no longer in school, Kim is taking time for herself, and she is also involved in several projects related to mental health and wellbeing.
“I have failed so many ways in regards to society’s expectations,” she said. “But I have redefined my version of success to be about my relationships I have with people…and the depth of connections that I make with people, and in regards to that definition, I am so successful.”
Here are some helpful campus mental-health resources for students. Remember, support is available. Do not be afraid to reach out.