Adapting our strategy

Addressing mental health doesn’t just mean lowering the bar

The Ontario government has pledged $27 million to the province’s colleges and universities to allow them to address mental health issues. As you can read in the cover story and in Ms. Ho’s letter this week, the funds come as much-needed relief to programs struggling to serve an increasingly high volume of students seeking help. A year-long report commissioned at Queen’s last year cites such Ontario postsecondary student figures as 15% having been treated for mental health problems, 36% feeling so depressed they couldn’t function, and 53% being overwhelmed by anxiety. At UTM, after students go through an intake session, then (except in a crisis) they can wait days or weeks to see a counsellor or months to see a psychiatrist who can make diagnoses and prescriptions. U of T’s plan to form a provostial committee to make recommendations is certainly called for; more staff hours would be a good start.

The questions I have concern not only remedies but also causes. The first thing to set out is the distinction between lifelong diagnoses and issues produced by changing circumstances; I mean the 7.5% of students in a study mentioned in a Maclean’s article last September who developed symptoms for the first time in university and the 5% whose symptoms worsened. What is the root? The typical answer is that students face stresses they can’t cope with. This invites further questions: What are the specific stresses and are they growing? Why aren’t students able to cope with them these days, or, if the situation hasn’t changed, why are universities only recognizing the problem now?

I’m reminded of a Margaret Wente article, “University’s not meant to be easy”, for the Globe and Mail last December. (It can be hard to read Wente dispassionately, and on topics like this the comment section on their website is closed.) Her argument is that young people today are less equipped than ever to deal with pressures they’ve always faced, and that typical university strategies to reduce anxiety amount to “infantilizing” us. She says it’s cruel to tell mentally fragile students to just suck it up, but when a huge proportion of the student population displays mental health issues, a panacea of simply “toughening these students up” seems to do just that.

One example is the proposal of a fall break to parallel the spring break, which is now implemented at 11 of Ontario’s 20 publicly funded universities, according to a Toronto Star article from last Tuesday, and is in place at St. George but not yet at UTM. Students have always coped without a fall break, so would it constitute a lowering of the bar? Hardly, I think: most of the implementations are a weekend plus a day or two (U of T’s is two days), and what’s more telling about the attitude towards them is a quote from Cooper Millard, Brock’s student president, in the article: he hopes students will use their vacation time to get caught up with studies. If the work threatens to creep into every new space of free time that opens up, that’s a sign that our attitude as students is one of resignation to overwork as a fact of student life. Is it even possible for some students to avoid feeling that they need to work and be productive or pay the price later? Remember, that wasn’t administration but a student who implied that we should be working even on a rare break.

In the same vein, although Wente said that students “barely squeaked through high school and can’t do the work”, the Maclean’s article says the average incoming grade of Queen’s students went up from 2007 to 2011 (when it was 88.1%), and U of T’s figures aren’t much lower. Not many of us here are actually inadequate as students. Yet many students I talk to feel they have to work excessively hard—that is, hard enough to lead to the anxiety figures noted above—to make the future value of their education worthwhile. (And this is accompanied by the frequently reinforced dread in the back of many of our minds that our education is becoming less pragmatically viable in the workforce with every day we take to complete it.)

But I’m not ultimately pinning mental issues to the workload. Lightening the workload—which, if it were our main goal, might as well consist of encouraging students to take fewer courses—is far from a strategy for addressing mental health. Students do need to acquire coping mechanisms, but it’s not simply because they’re not ready for the work. The real causes of mental health issues are much more complex, and it’s hard to talk about them without sidetracking. Maclean’s mentions the obvious one of the biological changes we undergo at university age. That’s certainly a factor. So is the possibility of underlying traits being brought out by transitional stress. But these issues have always existed, and the fact remains that situation of students has changed in recent years, marked by a rise in the rate of mental health issues. What’s uncertain now is in precisely which ways it has changed, and how they’re relevant to this effect, and that’s what I hope the provostial committee will uncover.  There’s no reason why addressing students’ mental health needs should involve a lowering of the bar; it should involve a change of strategy.

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