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Mental Health Matters

The Mental Health Matters series covers health topics pertinent to student life in order to promote a safe and healthy university experience.

Topics in this series include:

If there are topics of interest you would like to see in our Health Matters series, send us an health [dot] promotion [at] mcgill [dot] ca (e-mail) .

Click to download a pdf version. Mental Health Matters: Stress


What is stress?
Dr. Hans Selye, the father of stress theory, defined stress as "the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it." The "demand" can be a threat, a challenge or any kind of change which requires the body to adapt.

The response is automatic, immediate. Stress can be good (called "eustress") when it helps us perform better, or it can be bad ("distress") when it causes upset or makes us sick.

What does the stress reaction consist of?

The stress reaction results from an outpouring of adrenaline, a stimulant hormone, into the blood stream. This, with other stress hormones, produces a number of changes in the body which are intended to be protective.

The result often is called "the fight-or-flight response" because it provides the strength and energy to either fight or run away from danger.

The changes include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure (to get more blood to the muscles, brain and heart), faster breathing (to take in more oxygen), tensing of muscles (preparation for action), increased mental alertness and sensitivity of sense organs (to assess the situation and act quickly), increased blood flow to the brain, heart and muscles (the organs that are most important in dealing with danger) and less blood to the skin, digestive tract, kidneys and liver (where it is least needed in times of crisis). In addition, there is an increase in blood sugar, fats and cholesterol (for extra energy) and a rise in platelets and blood clotting factors (to prevent hemorrhage in case of injury).

What are the common symptoms of stress?

Manifestations of stress are numerous and varied but they generally fall into four categories (this is only a partial list of most common symptoms):

  • Physical: fatigue, headache, insomnia, muscle aches/stiffness (especially neck, shoulders and low back), heart palpitations, chest pains, abdominal cramps, nausea, trembling, cold extremities, flushing or sweating and frequent colds.
  • Mental: decrease in concentration and memory, indecisiveness, mind racing or going blank, confusion, loss of sense of humor.
  • Emotional: anxiety, nervousness, depression, anger, frustration, worry, fear, irritability, impatience, short temper.
  • Behavioral: pacing, fidgeting, nervous habits (nail-biting, foot-tapping), increased eating, smoking, drinking, crying, yelling, swearing, blaming and even throwing things or hitting.

What are the causes of stress?

Dr. Selye called the causes of stress "stressors" or "triggers." There are two kinds of stressors: external and internal.

External stressors include:

  • Physical environment: noise, bright lights, heat, confined spaces.
  • Social (interaction with people): rudeness, bossiness or aggressiveness on the part of someone else.
  • Organizational: rules, regulations, "red tape," deadlines.
  • Major life events: death of a relative, lost job, promotion, new baby.
  • Daily hassles: commuting, misplacing keys, mechanical breakdowns.

Internal stressors include:

  • Lifestyle choices: caffeine, not enough sleep, overloaded schedule.
  • Negative self-talk: pessimistic thinking, self-criticism, over-analyzing.
  • Mind traps: unrealistic expectations, taking things personally, all-or-nothing thinking, exaggerating, rigid thinking.
  • Stressful personality traits: Type A, perfectionist, workaholic, pleaser.

It is important to note that most of the stress that most of us have is actually self-generated. This is a paradox because so many people think of external stressors when they are upset (it is the weather, the boss, the roommate, the prof, the TA). Recognizing that we create most of our own upsets, however, is an important first step to dealing with them.

What are some ways to master stress?

The following are some categories that can be helpful in mastering stress:

Change lifestyle habits:
-Decrease caffeine (coffee, tea, colas, chocolate).
-Eat a well-balanced diet; decrease consumption of junk food.
-Eat slowly.
-Regular exercise (at least 30 minutes, three times per week).
-Get adequate sleep (figure out what you need, then get it).
-Leisure time (do something for yourself everyday).
-Relaxation exercises (e.g., meditation, self-hypnosis).

Change stressful situations:
-Time and money management.
-Possibly leaving school, a job or a relationship.

Change your thinking:
-Look at things more positively.
-See problems as opportunities.
-Refute negative thoughts.
-Keep a sense of humor.

Diversion and distraction:
-Take a time-out (anything from a short walk to a vacation) to get away from the things that are bothering you. This will not resolve the problem, but it gives you a break and a chance for your stress levels to decrease. Then, you can return to deal with issues feeling more rested and in a better frame of mind.

Some useful phone numbers

Counseling 398-3601
Mental Health 398-6019
Student Health 398-6017
McGill Nightline 398-6246
Currie Gym 398-7000
Career & Placement Service 398-3304
Chaplaincy Service 398-2546
Counselling & Tutorial Service 398-3601
First-Year Student’s Office 398-2385
International Student’s Office 398-6012
Student Aid Office 398-6015
Office of the Dean of Students 398-6008

Click to download a pdf version. Mental Health Matters: School Stress

School Stress

There's no doubt about it: a student's life (particularly a McGill student's life) is incredibly stressful. Consider how the following may help you:

Start your day off with a complete breakfast! Make it fun: go out for breakfast with a friend sometimes.

Limit your intake of high caffeine drinks (i.e. coffee, tea and soft drinks) to 1-2 drinks per day.

Set priorities! Write a to do list to help organize your work.

We are but flawed human beings. Don't try to be perfect all the time; just do your best and be happy with yourself.

Try not to do too many things at once. Focus on one task at a time.

Avoid procrastination! Create a manageable work schedule and stick to it.

Minimize noise levels when studying. Ear plugs are great if you have to study in a naturally noisy area or try playing soft music (i.e. classical) in the background.

Put your answering machine or voice mail to work. Restrict telephone calls when you're extra busy, you need to concentrate or you just need to relax.

Plan to use uninterrupted blocks of time for big jobs or a collection of smaller jobs-this may actually help save time in the long run.

Share your misery! Develop or join student support groups.

Take creative study breaks! Go roller-blading or skating, go for a walk or to the theatre. Don't always do the same things when you want to get away from your studies.

Make your study place a pleasant place. Tidy things up; have adequate lighting to avoid eye strain; ensure proper ventilation; and sit in a chair that offers proper back support.

Don't make grades a life or death issue! Everybody gets an ‘F' at least once, and learning is more than grades alone.

Three or four brains are better than one! Organize or join groups with 2-3 classmates and practice asking each other questions.

Develop a wide variety of sources of gratification in your life including family, friends, hobbies, interests, etc.

Take a 10-20 minute relaxation, yoga or exercise break during the day. (Check out McGill's physical education department or the downtown YMCA for numerous classes).

Get a good night's sleep (6-8 hours) - even during exams! You'll be able to concentrate better and therefore study better during the day.

Money isn't everything! Explore your vocational interests. Will your studies get you a job that suits your interests and abilities? Do you see yourself “happily” spending the rest of your life doing this job.

Be assertive! Learn how to express differences, to make requests and to say “No!”.

Don't overlook the emotional resources available to you—family, roommates, friends.

Some useful phone numbers

Counseling 398-3601
Mental Health 398-6019
Student Health 398-6017
McGill Nightline 398-6246

Click to download a pdf version. Mental Health Matters: SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

What is SAD?
SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Like animals, humans react to the changing season with changes in mood and behavior. Many people find that they eat and sleep more in the winter and dislike the dark mornings and short days.

Some people are vulnerable to a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. This condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Usually, SAD sufferers become depressed in the fall and winter and feel better during the spring and summer.

A mild form of SAD is often referred to as the “winter blues” and can cause discomfort but is not incapacitating. For some however, symptoms are severe enough to disrupt daily life and cause distress.

Some people have a rarer form of SAD which is summer depression and the condition usually begins in late spring or early summer.

Symptoms of winter SAD usually begin in October or November and subside in March or April.

What are the symptoms?

  • Sleep Problems – oversleeping but not feeling refreshed, not being able to get out of bed, needing a nap in the afternoon
  • Overeating – craving carbohydrates (sweet or starchy foods) leading to weight gain
  • Depression – despair, misery, guilt, anxiety, hopelessness, lack of interest in normal activities
  • Social Problems – avoiding company, irritability, loss of libido (interest in sexual activity)
  • Lethargy – feeling too tired to cope, everything is an effort, difficulty concentrating
  • Physical Symptoms – joint pain, stomach problems, lowered resistance to infection

What causes SAD?

Research into SAD is ongoing but it is thought to be related to seasonal variations in light. The biological clock in the brain that regulates circadian (daily) rhythms responds to changes in season partly because of the differences in the length of day.

For thousands of years, the cycle of human life revolved around the daily cycle of light and dark. People were alert when the sun shone and slept when it was dark. With the introduction of electricity, there was no need to be active only during daylight hours. Our biological clocks may still be telling our bodies to sleep as the days shorten which puts us out of step with our daily schedules even thought they no longer change according to the seasons. Other research shows that chemical messengers in the brain that help regulate sleep, mood, and appetite, may be disturbed in people with SAD.

What is the treatment for SAD?

Since the problem stems from the lack of bright light, people with mild symptoms can benefit from spending more time outdoors during the day and by arranging their surroundings to receive maximum sunlight. For example, keep curtains open during the day or move furniture so that you sit near a window.

Physical activity also relieves stress, builds energy and increases mental and physical well-being. Activity and increased exposure to natural light can raise your spirits.

Many SAD sufferers respond well to “light therapy” which involves exposure to bright, artificial light. The therapy requires you to sit beside a special fluorescent light box for several minutes a day.

You don’t have to stare at the light but the light should be allowed to reach your eyes as you watch tv or read next to the light box. The intensity of light is equivalent to the amount of light exposure you would receive from looking out a window on a sunny spring day.

For most people, between ¼ and ¾ hour daily is enough to alleviate symptoms of SAD.

For people with more severe symptoms of SAD, antidepressant medications can be effective. Counseling and therapy may also be helpful.

What should I do if I think I have SAD?

Consult your doctor. If your symptoms are mild and don’t severely disrupt your daily life, you may want to try light therapy or adjusting the lights in your surroundings using bright lights.

If your symptoms are severe, the doctor can find the most appropriate treatment for you.

Click to download a pdf version. Mental Health Matters: Seeking Mental Help

Seeking Mental Health Help

People commonly address and seek to remedy physical health issues, but often neglect mental health issues. Society also approaches mental health issues differently than medical ones. This can prevent people from getting potentially beneficial professional assistance. Contrary to this belief, addressing emotional health problems is not sign of weakness; recognizing and treating mental health issues are positive actions taken by strong individuals.

Mental health not only encompasses a lack of mental illness, but also includes how you feel about yourself and your adjustment to everyday life events. Mentally healthy individuals have been defined by the National Mental Health Association as having the following characteristics:

  • feeling good about themselves
  • not being overwhelmed by fear, anger, love, jealousy, anxiety, guilt, or other emotions
  • having lasting and satisfying personal relationships
  • feeling comfortable with other people
  • able to laugh at themselves and with others
  • respecting themselves and others despite differences
  • able to accept life's disappointments
  • able to meet life's demands and handle problems when they arise
  • making their own decisions
  • shaping their environment whenever possible and adjusting to it when necessary

What kinds of treatment are available?

A counselor can help you identify a problem area, explore potential contributing factors, and options for you to consider. Counseling is an active process that allows you to work with a therapist to set goals to resolve your problems and improve your mental health.

You should:
  • feel comfortable with, respected by, and trusting of your counselor
  • feel the treatment being provided is helpful
  • feel that your counselor understands you and accepts your opinions
  • along with your counselor, define and agree on the goals of your treatment and determine together when treatment should end
  • be able to alter your treatment goals at any time
  • feel you are making progress toward your goals
  • feel that your counselor is behaving in a professional manner

Tips For Staying Mentally Healthy

  • Don't let your emotions get contained. Share your feelings.
  • Practice efficient time management; balance work and leisure.
  • Minimize your exposure to things that cause distress; avoid unnecessary arguments or quarrels.
  • Prepare for stressful events by imagining yourself feeling calm and handling the situation well.
  • Spend time helping others.
  • Engage in activities you enjoy and look forward to.
  • Learn to laugh and have fun.
  • Participate in activities with people who share your interests.
  • Reward yourself with little things that make you feel good.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle: eat well, exercise and sleep enough.
  • Challenge yourself to do something new.
  • Forgive yourself for your mistakes - no one is perfect.
  • Set realistic goals for yourself.
  • Be flexible in dealing with people and events.
  • Take satisfaction in your accomplishments.
  • See the positive in events.

Services available at McGill

Counseling 398-3601
Mental Health 398-6019
Student Health 398-6017
McGill Nightline 398-6246

Click to download a pdf version. Mental Health Matters: Suicide Thoughts

Suicide Thoughts

In 1998, suicide caused the deaths of 3,699 Canadians, just over 15% of which were aged 15-24 years. The actual number of suicide deaths may be considerably higher. Any talk of suicide by a friend or loved one should be taken seriously and help sought immediately.

It's normal to feel sad, anxious, angry, hopeless or frustrated when difficult things happen.


If someone thinks about suicide a few times a week or almost every day, it's a sign of a serious health problem. A suicide attempt is a clear indication that something is gravely wrong in a person’s life. Most people don't respond to stress or troubles in this way.

Thoughts about suicide are important signals. People who have thoughts of suicide are conveying an important message. Their bodies and brains are telling them that something needs to change.

Suicide can be also be triggered by a number of things including:

  • stressful events, such as a failed exam or failure to get a job
  • crises in significant social or family relationships
  • interpersonal losses
  • changes in body chemistry
  • high levels of anger or anxiety

If you are having suicide thoughts

  • Take it seriously, as you would severe physical symptoms.
  • Avoid alcohol or other drugs. They increase the risk you will harm yourself.
  • Seek support—parents, other family members, friends or a teacher. Although it may be difficult to share these thoughts and feelings and to ask for help, it is important to do so.
  • Talk to a professional who can help. A counselor, therapist or campus counseling, or doctor or other health care provider.
  • Talk to clergy if you are religious or spiritual

Helping Yourself

Many college students have minor problems adjusting to their new environment. Here are a few ideas that can help you manage your feelings of pressure and stress:

  • Better plan your use of time.
  • Plan your work and sleep schedules. Seven or eight hours of sleep a night is important to your well-being.
  • Join an extracurricular activity. Activities can bring opportunities to meet people interested in the same things you are, and it provides a welcome change from class work.
  • Make a friend. Sometimes this may be a roommate or someone you meet in class or in the cafeteria. Friendships can help make a strange place feel more friendly and comfortable.
  • Try relaxation methods. These include meditation, deep breathing, warm baths, long walks, exercise - whatever you enjoy that lessens your feelings of stress or discomfort.
  • Take time for yourself each day. Make this special time - even if it's only 15 minutes by yourself. Focusing on yourself can be energizing and gives a feeling of purposefulness and control over your life.

Warning Signs

Any one of these symptoms does not necessarily mean the person is suicidal, but several of these symptoms may signal a need for help:

  • Verbal suicide threats such as, “You’d be better off without me.” or “Maybe I won’t be around.”
  • Daring or risk-taking behavior
  • Personality changes
  • Depression
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Lack of interest in future plans
  • Sadness or anxiety
  • Feelings of guilt, helplessness or hopelessness
  • Trouble eating or sleeping
  • Withdrawing from friends and/or social activities
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, work, school, etc.
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Anger

If a friend talks about suicide

If you notice any of the above warning signs in a friend or loved one, you have reason to be concerned. There are ways that you can be helpful to someone who is thinking of taking their own life.

  • Trust your instincts that the person may be in trouble.
  • Be honest and express your concerns. For example, “You seemed really down lately; is something bothering you?”
  • Ask directly about thoughts of suicide. For example, “Have you thought of hurting yourself?”
  • Listen. Offer emotional support, understanding and patience.
  • Convey the message that depression is real, common and treatable. Suicidal feelings are real and preventable.
  • Urge your friend to seek professional help. Offer to go along to a crisis center or counseling appointment.
  • If the person is in danger, don't leave him or her alone. It is important to limit access to firearms or other means of self harm. Call 911. Get someone else to help you.
  • Tell a professional about the situation, even if it means breaking a confidence.
  • Get support and take care of yourself. Talk to a counselor, your friends, your parents, a crisis line, or others your trust.

Getting Help

If the above techniques do not appear to be working, don't hesitate to seek professional help. If your feelings of constant stress become feelings of sadness that go on for weeks and months, you may be experiencing more than just difficulty adjusting to life's changes. Seek assistance from the university counseling service, student health center, your doctor, or a mental health professional.

Where can I get help?

If you, a family member or a friend need help, please contact the McGill health and/or counseling service. The following organizations may help, providing additional information about depression and suicide.
Counseling 398-3601
Mental Health 398-6019
Student Health 398-6017
McGill Nightline 398-6246