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Putting Mental Wellness to the Test

With student anxiety and stress peaking at exam time, some universities are now working to cultivate positive emotions on campus.


It’s that time of the year again: final exams. You can immediately sense the change in the atmosphere. Parties are replaced by study sessions and test anxiety. And although it might seem normal to be nervous for exams, student mental health is a very real and serious issue.

“Mental health continues to be a concern for many Canadian post-secondary students”, reports the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS). Surveying more than 43,000 students from 31 Canadian institutions, CACUSS survey data shows that the top factors affecting students’ academic performances were stress (42.4%), anxiety (32.5%), and depression (20.9%).

Studies have verified the effects of negative emotions, like stress, on the human body. Psychological stress, for instance, stimulates the secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines, immune system regulatory molecules which are known to influence the progression of depressive disorders and delay wound healing.

So how do we combat these negative effects?

Think positive

Jennifer Stellar, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, thinks we should focus on the positive.

“I am hoping to better understand how positive emotions contribute to better physical health. I am particularly interested in emotions like awe, compassion, gratitude, etc., emotions that bind us to other people. I think those emotions may have the most powerful link to health outcome,” she says.

Stellar wants to see whether positive emotions can reduce the inflammatory response and possibly levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.  Her new study out of the Health, Emotions, & Altruism laboratory (HEALTH Lab), will focus on the biological and emotional responses of 300 people recruited to view a Toronto art exhibit. The team will keep track of the participants’ cortisol levels and pro-inflammatory cytokines in saliva samples as well as their heart and respiration rates.

Stellar believes that the results could change how we approach physical and mental health. “We could prioritize cultivating positive emotions like awe and gratitude,” she says. “Devote time to these emotions because they aren’t luxurious. It could be good for your own health.”

A better environment

Providing a supportive university environment is crucial.

In October, six universities (iUniversity of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Memorial University, Mount Royal University, University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge) announced the implementation of the Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges.

The Okanagan Charter was an outcome of the 2015 International Conference on Promoting Universities and Colleges. Developed by researchers, practitioners, administrators, students and policy makers from 45 countries, the charter aims to create health promoting universities and colleges.

“We are committing an additional $1 million to support well-being initiatives because people who study, work and live in environments that make healthy living a priority are happier, more successful and better equipped to handle challenges,” said UBC President Professor Santa Ono, in an interview with UBC.

The contributing universities are working to encourage both local and global campuses to participate in the movement. They want students to get the most out of their university experience and bring positive impact to the wider community.

In the meantime, Stellar encourages students to take the time to cultivate positive emotions. “Go to a museum, go to a concert, find ways to build positive emotions into your life, even if it’s hard or you’re busy. In the end, I think feeling positive emotions will make you better and more focused when it comes time to study.”

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So Jin Park is an undergraduate student studying English, biology and statistics at the University of Toronto. She is passionate about bridging the gap between science and the humanities and making science enjoyable for everyone.