The Burden of Mental Illness In University

We often hear people at school talk about how anxious they are for upcoming tests or getting grades back. Some people say that they haven’t slept or eaten properly for days because they are studying so hard for their finals. These are all behaviours that come naturally for a lot of people with the stresses that school can provide, and it made me wonder… for people who are dealing with varying forms of mental illness, can this affect the way these people perform academically?

For myself personally, I have always been a star student. In high school, I graduated an Ontario Scholar and finished grade 12 with a pretty solid average. However, this changed a lot when I came to University. I have struggled with my mental health since I was probably in the 8th grade, but I definitely did not have as much independence in terms of looking after myself throughout this time. When you come to University, it’s a whole new world. You primarily have to take care of yourself and it can be hard to find a solid support system when you’re trying to make new friends.

I struggled a lot with my grades when I started University, mainly because I found it hard to balance the new lifestyle I was adapting to. I also struggled a lot with my mental illness and I wondered if it affected the way I performed in school. An article by Boston University outlined some of the ways that struggling with mental illness can affect academic performance. These included the inability to concentrate, difficulty handling time pressures and multiple tasks, difficulty handling negative feedback, and difficulty responding to change, among others ("How does mental illness affect my school performance? – Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation", n.d.). Many of these are things you will deal with in University, and struggling with a mental illness can make it that much harder to cope with.Multiple studies have shown that there is a negative impact between mental illness and academic performance. A study by Ng and Lee showed that high levels of anxiety in students can have a serious impact on working memory, and therefore cause difficulty focusing on the task at hand (Owens, Stevenson, Hadwin & Norgate, 2012). Dealing with clinical depression can also pose negative side effects when talking about academic performance. It has been shown that depression is linked to lack of concentration and intrusive thoughts, which can also make it extremely hard for people to focus (Owens, Stevenson, Hadwin & Norgate, 2012). In a post by Harvard Health Blog, it is discussed that certain types of depression medications like paroxetine (or Paxil) have been linked to impaired memory function (Pendick, 2013). Higher levels of procrastination can also come with anxiety and depression, and procrastination itself has been shown to cause negative academic outcomes and psychological suffering for students (Constantin, English & Mazmanian, 2017). Procrastination generally stems from when a student finds a task frustrating or difficult, and people choose to do activities that are enjoyable so that they can avoid feeling negative emotions about said task (Constantin, English & Mazmanian, 2017). People who are dealing with anxiety and depression are especially affected by this as they may make decisions to positively affect their current mood state, but it may negatively impact their long-term goals (Constantin, English & Mazmanian, 2017).

Although this is only a snippet of all the research there is out there about mental illness and academic performance, it is clear to see that there is a link between the two. For now, I would like to discuss some of the resources that I believe are important (some that people may not know about) to help keep your mental health on track at University. One thing that I was not aware of until my third year was that you can apply for academic accommodations if you are struggling with mental illness. At Queen’s specifically, you can apply with documentation from a doctor or psychiatrist which can help you get more time during tests, or have more flexibility when speaking to your profs about due dates or extensions. Another resource is Peer Support Centres; which can be a really helpful resource when you just need someone to talk to, to help decompress and be able to talk about any stressful feelings you may have. Although people working at centers like this are not mental health professionals, talking to someone who isn’t your friend or family can often be really helpful, and all of your information is always kept confidential. Finally, if you think that this would be helpful to you, talking to a professional is definitely one of the best ways to start feeling better. I am personally a big proponent of this because they can give you the tools to help manage what you are dealing with, and hopefully help you get back on track to performing your best at school every day.


Constantin, K., English, M., & Mazmanian, D. (2017). Anxiety, Depression, and Procrastination Among Students: Rumination Plays a Larger Mediating Role than Worry. Journal Of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. doi: 10.1007/s10942-017-0271-5

How does mental illness affect my school performance? – Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. Retrieved from

Owens, M., Stevenson, J., Hadwin, J., & Norgate, R. (2012). Anxiety and depression in academic performance: An exploration of the mediating factors of worry and working memory. School Psychology International, 33(4), 433-449. doi: 10.1177/0143034311427433

Pendick, D. (2013). 7 common causes of forgetfulness - Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from