How to Help

This section recognizes the crucial role that fellow students and friends have in supporting the mental health of everyone. Classmates are often the first to recognize that a friend may be in distress. In order to learn how to help, it is important that you understand the various characteristics of poor mental health/illness. View the "Mental Health Continuum" below. Most students are in the Healthy or Reacting stages. Students move back and forth as they react to the pressures of living and postsecondary studies. About 1 in 3 postsecondary students may slip from Reacting to Injured if not supported or assisted when help is needed. About 1 in 5 Canadians will experience the far end of the continuum, Illness, and will require the support of professionals.

You may find information to help you understand mental illnesses in the Quick Facts about Mental Illness section and there is a downloadable PDF version of this information for you as well. Each section has additional resources, videos or guides to further assist you in understanding these disorders.

One major way you can get involved is to consider your college’s peer mentoring program. The Canadian Mental Health Association has created a manual to accompany your college’s existing peer mentoring program and encourages you to reach out to others. You can discuss this with your counselling/advising services.

Finally, consider becoming proactive by viewing the Students in Action section that will give you some ideas to build awareness and keep healthy yourself.

You can make a difference.

The Mental Health Continuum

Mental Health Continuum Chart for Mobile Devices
continuum groups self care to professional care


Normal Functioning

Normal mood fluctuations. Takes things in stride. Consistent performance. Normal sleep patterns. Physically and socially active. Usual self-confidence Comfortable with others.


Common & Reversible Distress

Irritable/Impatient. Nervousness, sadness, increased worrying. Procrastination, forgetfulness. Trouble sleeping (more often in falling asleep) Lowered energy. Difficulty in relaxing. Intrusive thoughts. Decreased social activity.


Significant Functional Impairment

Anger, anxiety. Lingering sadness, tearfulness, hopelessness, worthlessness. Preoccupation. Decreased performance in academics or at work. Significantly disturbed sleep (falling asleep and staying asleep). Avoidance of social situations, withdrawal.


Clinical Disorder. Severe & Persistent Functional Impairment.

Significant difficulty with emotions, thinking High level of anxiety, Panic attacks. Depressed mood, feeling overwhelmed Constant fatigue. Disturbed contact with reality Significant disturbances in thinking Suicidal thoughts/ intent/behaviour.

Self Care to Professional Care

Quick Facts about Mental Illness


Feelings of stress are a normal part of life. Stress is what gets us up in the morning and keeps us moving forward. Many postsecondary students report feelings of stress before big events such as an exam, a class presentation, a job interview, a new job, a wedding or party, or in times of financial worries. Stress helps keep us awake and on our toes, ready for action.

But sometimes, too much stress can leave a person feeling anxious, on edge, worried. It can also give rise to other symptoms such as headaches, stomach upsets, back pain, trouble sleeping, and trouble concentrating on a task. Stress can even cause some health problems.

This can happen during exam week or during a relationship problem or when for some reason a person feels he or she has failed and can’t get back on track. The reasons can vary from individual to individual. Sometimes too much stress can lead to mental health issues where our ability to complete life daily activities becomes compromised.

We all have coping strategies that help us manage our stress and stay in balance. But sometimes, when there is too much stress we can be out of balance. When anyone is stressed, it’s easy to eliminate some of the items that help us stay in balance and managing stress.

Signs of too much stress:

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Reduced concentration
  • Difficulty with memory and organization
  • Anxiety
  • Undue anger
  • Physical problems such as insomnia, stomach problems, headaches
  • Poor judgment
  • Moodiness
  • Isolating from others

Fellow classmates and friends are in unique positions to both mitigate stressors in the environment while also reacting to others in obvious stress. When performance or behaviour is a cause for concern, suggest that the person talk things over with a counsellor or advisor or someone else they trust. Showing you understand and care can be very helpful.

For more information about stress:

Anxiety Disorders

any of us feel some type of anxiety during certain situations. The anxious feelings may be caused by a combination of life events such as exams, a traumatic event, personal loss, and ∕ or biological factors such as health problems. For students, there can be many triggers for anxiety. Class presentations, exams, group work, new surroundings away from home, social interactions, emotional relationship break-ups, financial problems; all may impact on an individual to create anxious feelings. If these feelings persist or are intense enough to interfere with activities, a person may have an anxiety disorder. This condition can affect activities of life such as relationships with family, friends, and many academic tasks.

For some people, the anxiety is triggered by brain chemistry and can run in families. In others, certain medical conditions such as anemia and thyroid problems can also cause anxiety. Conditions are further affected by some medications, alcohol, drugs and caffeine.

Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental health problems and are found in about 1 in 10 people. Anxiety disorders can be classed as panic disorder, phobia, social phobia, specific phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. They can come on suddenly as a result of an event in the past or be triggered by a current event. Some form of anxiety is reported by many students. Though they may not have an anxiety disorder, the situations they may find themselves in can cause intense symptoms that can interfere with postsecondary studies, placements and life in general.

Anxiety disorders can be treated. The main approaches are drug therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy or a combination of both. Many people find that meditation and breathing exercises help to control the feelings associated with anxiety. Eating properly, avoiding caffeine, and exercising regularly such as taking a walk all help in addition to the therapies. Often support groups also help manage the impact.

For students experiencing anxiety but not a disorder, a supportive environment can help keep them in balance. Supportive staff, availability of counselling or advising supports and a college environment that provides services and a balance of assistance is helpful. Often students can get past their feelings of anxiety with the right environment. Friends who understand and support them can help ensure they seek the help they may benefit from.

For more information about anxiety disorders:

Depression (Mood Disorder)

Many people may feel depressed at different times in response to life’s difficulties. But a mood disorder, most commonly called depression, is more than an occasional feeling of being down. Depression is the effort of managing feelings of severe despair for an extended period of time. People in depression have difficulty understanding that there will be a change or help for their situation.

Depression affects every part of a life including academic activities, physical health, social life, work and health in general. People who are experiencing major depression may have some of the following symptoms:

  • Lack of energy
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Appetite loss, or overeating
  • Missing class, events, appointments
  • Difficulty sleeping, always tired
  • Physical problems such as pain, headaches, digestive problems that don’t go away even with treatment
  • Forgetfulness, inability to concentrate
  • Lack of interest in pleasurable activities
  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness or helplessness
  • Sometimes thoughts of suicide

Major depression is disabling and prevents a person from normal functioning. People may have only one episode in their lifetime, while others may have many episodes. There are various types of depression, some caused by chemical imbalances such as seasonal affective disorder, postpartum depression, and psychotic depression. Sometimes the depression starts out as a minor depression for about two weeks and without help, this could develop into a major depressive disorder.

Depression may be caused by a combination of factors, genetic, biological, environmental and psychological. There is help and treatment for this disorder. There are new medications available to help regulate the chemical imbalances causing the depression. Psychotherapies are also important in treating depression.

Often others in the life of a person are the first to notice if a person is depressed; friends, family, teachers all may notice that there are changes. Reaching out a helping hand to discuss any problem is a good first step. Just knowing that someone recognizes and is concerned enough to say something can be a big help.

For more information about depression:

Eating Disorders

When a person is obsessed with limiting the intake of food to the point of starvation (anorexia), or eating excessive amounts at one time (binge), or purging after eating (bulimia), or even exercising compulsively (anorexia athletic), he or she may have an eating disorder.

People who have eating disorders may be having difficulty with their self-esteem or body image. They may feel that they have some control over their lives by controlling what they eat. While dieting and food intake can be valid decisions at certain times, if taken to excess they could cause serious physical and mental damage.

Eating disorders are more often found in adolescents between the ages of 15-25 though anyone could be affected. Sometimes being away from home such as at college can trigger this response to a need to feel accepted.

Often friends, family or teachers will be the first to notice. Offering to listen, encouraging them to talk to a counsellor or advisor is a good first step.

For more information about eating disorders:


These are complex biochemical brain disorders that often first appear in young adulthood.. Sometimes people experience delusions, hallucinations, hear voices and have feelings of confusion. Only a qualified practitioner can help find the right diagnosis and treatment options.

Often there are clear signs when a person is in an episode that is apparent to teachers, classmates, friends, family and even the general public.

Signs may include:

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Depression
  • Tiredness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Anxiety and/or suspiciousness
  • Mood swings (extreme happiness to anger)
  • Reduced ability to focus and feelings of disorientation
  • A dislike to being touched by anyone
  • An extreme sensitivity to noise, light, colours, textures.

During an episode symptoms may include:

  • Increased confusion
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Altered emotions
  • Behavioural changes

If any of these episode symptoms are observed by friends or fellow students, every effort should be made to contact staff designated to assist in these situations. Counselling or advising staff should be notified.

For more information about psychosis:


This is a complex mental illness that changes perception, emotions and behaviour as a result of biological imbalance. Although there is no cure for schizophrenia people are helped by psychosocial treatment and medication.

It is important to understand that when in remission a person may behave relatively normally and can function in society.

Symptoms start slowly usually in young adulthood. Early warning signs may include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Social withdrawal
  • Confused thinking
  • Inability to relax

More serious symptoms may include:

  • Personal appearance deteriorates
  • Loss of interest in school or work or social events
  • Unusual perceptions
  • Sudden excesses
  • Difficulty understanding words in context
  • Hearing voices or seeing people or things that aren’t there
  • Mood swings

Because people with schizophrenia aren’t usually aware of their situation it can be difficult to get them to treatment. Family and friends often support loved ones with these symptoms to get medical treatment.

For more information about psychosis:

Self Injury

Self injury is the act of hurting oneself. The harm is often done through shallow cuts, burns, bruises or other forms of marking the skin. People do this as a coping strategy for psychological pain. They many find that the physical pain of cutting, burning, picking at skin or hair, or punching themselves is a relief from the unbearable pain caused by something in their lives. It’s a way of dealing with deep emotional distress.

Usually self injury is a sign that they don’t have the coping strategies in place to deal with their problems and the self injury provides an outlet for how they are feeling. It may be that feelings of loneliness, depression or anger are causing a buildup of tension.

People who self injure can come from any background. It may impact people who are rich or poor, high school or college students. They may be from any profession. Most often, people who self injure start the behaviour in high school or postsecondary. While this is a serious situation that requires attention and the help of professionals, it is not a cry for attention or a precursor to suicide.

Because self injury is done in private and often in places that can be covered with clothing, people can continue to self harm without anyone knowing. However, family members, close friends and teachers may be the first to notice.

Signs may include:

  • Unexplained wounds or marks or scars near the wrists, arm or legs that are exposed by clothing movement
  • Blood stains on clothing, or tissues
  • Sharp objects such as razors, needles, glass in the person’s belongings
  • Frequent ‘accidents’ to explain injuries
  • Covering up with long sleeves even when the weather is hot
  • Isolation and irritability
  • Wounds that don’t heal due to picking at scabs
  • Puncture marks from items being inserted in the skin
  • Associated behaviours may include reckless driving, binge drinking, unsafe sex and taking too many drugs

If you notice that someone may be self harming try to communicate with the individual and encourage him/her to talk things over with someone they can trust. Counselling and advising staff may be able to assist.

For more information about Self Injury:

Substance Use Disorder

ubstance Use Disorders are often started as a way of coping with stress and peer pressures. Students who are away from home and their support network may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with loneliness, stress or other problems or as a way of feeling as if they could ‘fit in’ with the new social scene.

A person with a mental health problem has a higher risk of also having a substance use problem and this is called a concurrent disorder. Sometimes a person with an anxiety disorder may also have an alcohol problem or be addicted to medications. Medical professionals agree that substance use can make mental health problems worse.

Substance use and abuse is prevalent on campus. Substance abuse can have a profound negative impact on academic progress and the general health of a person.

Some of the common symptoms of substance abuse may include:

  • Impaired judgment and attention
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Sleeplessness, nausea
  • Loss of interest in academic pursuits or achievement

Friends are most often the first to observe that a person is consuming harmful substances at a rate that may be impacting general health and academic progress. While many people may indulge in substance use from time to time, it is the dangerous use that is of most concern. Many students report that alcohol and drugs are a part of their daily life so it may be difficult to determine the difference between recreational use and a disorder. Generally paying attention to the symptoms will help guide in that decision. If you become concerned that a friend or classmate is withdrawing from responsibilities, it may be time to encourage them to discuss things with a counsellor or advisor or someone else you know and trust to be helpful.

For more information about substance use disorder:


Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the 15-24 age group. There is a very high correlation between suicide ideation (thoughts of suicide) and mental illness. It is often the result of feelings of hopelessness or grief. People who complete or attempt suicide can be of any age, gender, or from any social group. However, men are more likely to die by suicide. Most people who die by suicide do not necessarily want to die. They do want the pain they are experiencing to stop.

Who is most likely to be at risk of suicide?

  • People with depression, substance abuse disorder, some other mental disorders
  • A family history of mental disorders, violence or suicide

Postsecondary students may be at risk for any of the above reasons. Additionally, depression caused by social isolation, academic pressures or negative feelings can be a contributing factor. There are treatments associated with the risk factors as well as talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy which can help people learn effective ways of dealing with stressful experiences. Some medications may help.

Myths about suicide:

Suicide notes are always left at the time of suicide.

  • Fact: Notes are rarely left

People who talk about suicide rarely attempt suicide.

  • Fact: Talk about suicide is a major warning sign. Suicide talk can escalate into thoughts which can escalate to attempts at suicide.

Once someone has attempted suicide, they will not attempt again.

  • Fact: People who have attempted in the past are most at-risk for future attempts.

The suicide rate is highest around Christmas.

  • Fact: The rate is rather consistent throughout the year with a slight rise in January peaking in early spring.

Some warning signs:

  • Talking about suicide
  • Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary.

If you hear someone talking about suicide, it is important to have him/her talk to a counsellor or advisor or someone of trust as soon as possible. If he won’t talk to anyone and you are fearful that he may attempt to harm himself, its best to call 911. They have trained staff who will ensure the safety of your friend.

For more information:

Peer Mentoring Program

Visit the counselling/advising service to see if your college already has a Peer Mentoring Program similar to the one presented here by Northern College. If so, there may be an opportunity for you to participate in additional content related to mental health. This will increase your knowledge about mental health and mental illnesses so that you will be better able to support your peers.

We have provides some suggested resources that you may wish to tailor to your college if you don’t already have such a program. Here you can download the Peer Mentoring Manuals (Facilitators or Students), that you may use in any way to support your program.

Students in Action

Steps to Take Action

What can you do to help decrease stigma and support your friends and family members who may have mental health challenges? There are many things each of us can do. Here are a few steps you can take to be a part of the solution.

Step 1: Shout out Stigma

Work to dispel myths and reduce the stigma of mental illness.

Hurtful language can be found everywhere. It perpetuates a harmful and negative image of people with various mental illnesses. Jokes, comments, sarcasm, can all be harmful. We can all stop that right now. Call it when you hear it.

Explore The Jack Project . In addition to information about students in action there are opportunities to get involved in activities to promote mental health and reduce stigma.

Step 2: Educate Yourself

Canadian Mental Health Association has a complete description of the various mental illnesses and their indicators. It also offers suggestions to help and support family or friends. In addition it provides ideas to improve mental health in everyone. The site also has downloadable guides that contain additional information, A Guide to College or University for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities.

Step 3: Know your Community Resources

Ontario’s Postsecondary Student Helpline, Good2Talk or call 1-866-925-5454. Good2Talk is a free, completely confidential and anonymous service that offers you professional counselling, mental health information and connections to local resources. We’re here 24/7/365 in both English and French. is an online Canada wide data base of resources for a wide range of problems in every community in Canada. Services may include housing, financial assistance, food, counselling, medical services among many others.

The Mental health Help Line is a service that provides phone, chat, or email assistance 24/7. This service provides information about counselling services in each community, as well as strategies and basic education about mental illness. This is a service of ConnexOntario.

Other Reasources

Step 4: Consider Training Opportunities

ASIST Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Program is a 2-day interactive workshop to provide first aid support for suicide prevention. This training is offered by various chapters of the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Ontario Association for Suicide Prevention and other providers. May be available at your college.

Mental Health First Aid is the comprehensive training offered through the Mental Health Commission of Canada and may be available in your college.

Take Action Videos

Keeping Yourself in Balance

Good mental health is a balance of factors. Your mental health is affected by what you eat, your sleep patterns, physical condition, your emotional health, relationships, your work or educational pursuits – all in a balance.

When one or more of these factors is causing you problems, your ability to problem solve the issues and return to balance is called resiliency.

There are ways you can increase your resiliency and ability to maintain a balance – but it takes awareness on your part and hard work.

Here are some ideas to promote resiliency and your balanced mental health.

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. Alcohol and illegal drugs can make you feel less inhibited and more likely to engage in behaviour that may be dangerous to you. The other side effects often impact the ability to learn and remember.
  • Maintain a good social network. Family and friends can be important supports.
  • Use the supports available. Your educational setting likely has staff who are available to discuss issues with you. Often there are extensive supports that can really promote your mental health and academic success. Reach out; they are there to assist you in any way possible.
  • Get as active as possible. Physical activity can reduce stress and depression. Even a walk or jog can help, especially if it’s out of doors. It doesn’t have to be long, 20 minutes is something most people can squeeze into busy days.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Foods contain important nutrients that support learning, memory, and a positive outlook. Try to select healthy choices, even in a busy schedule.
  • Develop good sleep habits. Research shows that a regular schedule with at least 7 hours of sleep each night is important for good health. During this time your body repairs damage caused by life and helps promote physical and emotional health.

Resources that may interest you:

  • Review the Emotional Health Help Guide to learn about anger management, the role of laughter, stress relief, easy exercise tips and more.
  • Review the Exercise & Fitness Help Guide to learn some easy exercises, exercise plan and relaxation exercises.
  • Review the Healthy Eating Help Guide to learn about planning a healthy diet, emotional eating, healthy fast food and more.
  • Review the Memory Help Guide to learn how to improve your memory.
  • Review the Relationships Help Guide to learn about effective communication, conflict resolution, how to make friends, fixing relationship problems and more.
  • Review the Sleep Help Guide to learn about how to sleep better.
  • Visit for the Suicide Prevention Help Guide . This is a good compendium of topics related to understanding suicide and suicide prevention. Topics include suicide help, dealing with depression, suicide prevention, warning signs.

Apps & Instructional Videos

Apps for Mental Health (free or low cost)

PTSD Coach is designed for people living with Post-Traumatic Stress, but can easily be applied to anyone living with anxiety or depression.  It’s available for both iOS (Apple) and Android free from the Apple Store and Google Play Store.

Features include:

  • Tools for screening and tracking your symptoms
  • Convenient, easy-to-use skills to help you handle stress symptoms
  • Direct links to support and help (customizable)
  • Always with you when you need it

BellyBio teaches deep breathing techniques helpful to minimize stress and anxiety. Free app from iTunes Store.

Operation Reach Out is an intervention tool that helps people who are thinking about suicide to reassess their thinking and get help. Developed by the military and available free from iTunes Store.

eCBT is an app that provides calm to people feeling stressed. Assess stress level, provides relaxation skills and includes links to online resources. $0.99 from iTunes.

WhatsMyM3 is a free app from the iTunes Store that can help you assess your current mental health and help you and your doctor determine if you have a mood disorder.

DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach. Developed by a psychologist, this app includes self-help skills, reminders and coaching tools for coping. $4.99 at the iTunes Store this app is highly recommended by existing users.

Optimism is a free app that helps you develop strategies for managing depression, bipolar or other mental health conditions. Available from the iTunes store.

Apps for Health in General

Sleep Aids

From the Best IPhone Fitness Apps review ones specifically to improve your sleep.

  • Sleep Cycle to monitor your movements as you sleep
  • Sleep Bug to provide soothing noise when you sleep
  • Pzizz to create a different soundtrack using binaural beats to help induce relaxation
  • Sleep Aid promises sleep in 20 min or less. Available for free from the iTunes Store.

Exercise Promotion

From the Best IPhone Fitness Apps review ones specifically to create fun workouts or exercises

  • Runno a game to make running in your neighbourhood as much fun as possible
  • Nexercise gives you a chance to win points for any physical activity for gift cards and discounts
  • Zombies, Run! Is an ‘immersive zombie apocalypse running game’ that promises fun while you run
  • BeFit exercise programs including hip-pho cardio to ab workouts.
  • GymGoal Free has 280 exercises with step-by-step instructions and animations.
  • Fitocracy turns fitness into a game in which you earn points, battle the laziness dragon and engage with a community of players.

Instructional Video

On Campus

On Campus Challange: A Gallery of Student Expression

The On Campus Challenge included a Contest of student art/expression as a platform to promote mental health and awareness. Students from Cambrian, Canadore, Confederation, and Northern Colleges submitted pieces of art and design that shows how they've experienced mental illness.

The contest had a variety of categories including posters, rants, musical, digital, & other creative artistic submissions. Qualifying submissions would clearly promote the overarching theme of "Promoting mental health and reducing stigma on our campus". We invite you to view the powerful and highly creative submissions by our Northern college students: