Graduating students facing mental wellness risks

UAlberta recognizes need to support students plagued with anxiety over the job market.


Many students are still neck deep in their studies when they begin to worry about what their university degree will get them in the job market, according to Andre Costopoulos, the University of Alberta’s vice-provost and dean of students.

“We’ve found that the transition out of university creates as much stress—potentially affecting mental well-being—as the transition into university does,” said Costopoulos. “It’s a serious issue, and while we have great programs that help prepare students for the transition to exciting careers, there’s more we can do.”


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U of A data from the 2016 National College Health Assessment showed that third- and fourth-year students at the university experience roughly the same levels of hopelessness, exhaustion, sadness and depression as first-year students, noted Kevin Friese, assistant dean of health and wellness in the Office of the Dean of Students.

“But things are shifting in terms of what’s impacting students. As students get ready to transition out of university, leaving their housing situation and finding a job, a whole new set of life questions arises and that raises their levels of anxiety and possible depression, especially as they are still managing studies,” he explained.

“Students may also be facing a lot debt, and unrealistic expectations from family members about job prospects,” added Joan Schiebelbein, director of the U of A’s Career Centre. “Students today have much higher expectations about what kind of work their education should get them and the salaries they should receive than students 10 or 15 years ago.”

Friese added that students today may need to adjust expectations and accept that they may have to start out at the bottom rung of the ladder.

“Otherwise it may lead to a lot of frustration and anxiety, especially if they’re facing a lot of student debt, if they don’t get a high- or middle-level engineer job or health-care position right after graduation,” he said.

Costopoulos added that students probably have more anxiety than is warranted.

“Yes, they are entering a highly competitive market, and there is a real-world concern that the middle of the socioeconomic curve is disappearing and that outcomes are more polarizing than they used to be,” he said.

“However, students have the impression that they are either going to be a huge success or a huge failure and there is nothing between. We’re working with them to show them that there is life after university and it’s going to be OK.”

Normalizing uncertainty

The U of A Career Centre’s mission is to help normalize uncertainty, explained Schiebelbein.

“We encourage students to talk to people around them, such as parents, about their career stories. More often than not, people end up where they are by happenstance rather than planning.”

That doesn’t mean the centre is encouraging students to leave their future up to fate, Schiebelbein noted.

“We encourage a mentality of ‘planned happenstance.’ It sounds like an oxymoron but it is recognizing that, while no one can predict the future, students can become involved with and engaged in career development and networking, so that when they make a connection or when a chance event happens, they’re in a position to capitalize on that opportunity.”

In that vein, the Career Centre offers students a suite of opportunities outside the classroom that are both low and high commitment.

“Not every student is able to commit to one of our internship or work experience programs or even in our Career Mentoring Program, so we also host Job Shadow Week during Reading Week in November and February.”

Schiebelbein added that job-shadowing opportunities are not limited to Reading Week.

“Students really find that once they talk to someone who works in their field and see how they work, a lot of their stress dissipates. Plus, once they are in a workplace, they also get to make other connections that could lead to opportunities.”

While there are more students than job shadowing opportunities available, career coaches at the Career Centre are available to boost career management skills, which goes a long way to reduce stress, said U of A career coach Justin Pritchard. The university’s robust Transition to Career (T2C) program is a four-part blended learning program with an online module and career coaching, and also includes an experiential learning component.

New supports

“The university recognizes it needs to scale up these programs and develop others, and is doing so where resources are available,” said Costopoulos.

Helen Vallianatos, associate dean in the Office of the Dean of Students, is contributing to a pan-Canadian research project called ACCESS Open Minds that is focused on student mental wellness and finding ways to provide early intervention. One outcome has been to add two new social workers to work with U of A students who experience stress, anxiety and other mental illnesses at any stage of their academic life.

Another outcome is an online self-assessment tool students can use to monitor and evaluate their mental wellness. It will be available before the end of the winter 2018 semester.

“Part of the conversation that has arisen from focus groups for our research is that students are not used to asking for help,” said Vallianatos.

To help break down that barrier, a youth council that is part of the research project is also working with the City of Edmonton to make its 211 information and referral line student-friendly.

“Our goal is to have U of A students who need help with anything, including mental wellness concerns, to call and be referred to helpful supports, hopefully with a web chat component,” said both Feodor Poukhovski-Sheremetyev (third-year BA at Campus Saint-Jean) and Sara Jalali (third-year BSc).

Students need to realize their university education itself has prepared them to adapt to anything that seems like a challenge, said Costopoulos.

“My bottom-line message to students is, ‘Don’t think too far into the future,’” added Schiebelbein. “The world is in a constant state of change. So just focus on what you can do now, and be open to opportunities when they present themselves. You never know where it may lead you.”