Understanding Distress

Most often, the term “distress” describes the emotions or feelings that interfere with a person’s ability to carry out daily activities. Distress is closely related to the term “crisis” which is used to describe a person’s response to a situation or event. A simple way to understand when a student is in crisis is to recognize when a student’s resources have been overwhelmed by demands or challenges they are facing. A crisis may involve a real or perceived threat, barrier or traumatic event but also presents an opportunity for change and growth (Ontario College of Art and Design University, 2014). A student in distress will be struggling with their academics or day‐to‐day tasks and demands. This struggle if prolonged and intense may evolve into a crisis. Early identification that a student is in distress supports early intervention and the possible prevention of an escalation to crisis.

Difficulties in a student’s life can emerge from a variety of challenges:

  • student who may be the first in their family to attend post-­‐secondary study
  • student who may be coming to the University from distant country and culture
  • student from an underrepresented group such as Aboriginal students or students with disabilities
  • student who experiences societal discrimination as a result of gender, religion, or sexual orientation
  • student who faces external challenges owing to financial or familial obligations
  • student with a learning disability
  • student with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness
  • health problems
  • substance abuse or addiction
  • sexual harassment and/or sexual assault

Stigma refers to the negative qualities and perceptions that are attributed to people with mental health problems. Stigma is often associated with discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes. People often avoid or delay medical care and treatment for their mental health problems because of stigma and the fear others will see them as “weak” or “different”.

The negative reaction to mental illness leads to discrimination that can be as hard for people to deal with as the symptoms of the disorder itself. For people with mental illness, stigma can be a barrier to finding a place to live, finding a job, finding friends, building a long-­‐term relationship and connecting to the broader community -­‐ things that everyone needs for mental health. (CAMH, 2001, 7.)

Unfortunately, sometimes stigmatized individuals adopt popular prejudices themselves, a process known as selfp stigma. As a result, they may experience a loss of confidence or selfp esteem that exacerbates their mental health challenges and prevent them from seeking needed support.

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