From hustling to health

Beyond productivity culture

Noah Vaton, Multimedia Editor

Marty the Mythological Martlet

One evening this past semester, my roommates and I were discussing the McGill mascot, Marty the Martlet. Although we knew what Marty looked like, none of us had any idea what an actual martlet was. After some research, we discovered that our beloved mascot is based on an ancient mythological bird––with no feet. From the second the martlet enters the world, it is in perpetual flight until the last flap of its wings.

Suddenly, we had a revelation; Marty the Martlet wasn't so far fetched after all. A bird that can never take a break from flying, which must continuously flap its wings to survive? I couldn't think of a better creature to represent McGill students.

It didn't take me very long to sense the intense, competitive, hustle culture––I was exposed to it before I even arrived in Montreal. Soon after I accepted my offer at McGill, I joined the Facebook group for entering students to make some connections before arriving at university. Although the Facebook group's purpose was to lessen the daunting stress of starting university, now just months ahead of me, it did the opposite.

I was bombarded with introductions from hundreds of students. The idea was simple––to share a few fun facts about oneself. Yet even that simple prompt quickly became an incitement for competition. If the first student that posted spoke two languages, then by the time the 10th student posted, they spoke 12 languages and were the son of an international diplomat.

“There definitely is a hustle culture at McGill,” wrote Alisa Nosova, U3 Arts, in an email to The McGill Tribune. “Everyone is hustling to get the best opportunities, get into the most interesting classes, build relationships with professors that teach classes of 200+ students, and take on executive positions in clubs. It's competitive out there.”

Nosova is no stranger to the rat race. After arriving at McGill, she did everything in her power to try and compete: She took on multiple executive positions, became involved with the Arts Undergraduate Society, and acquired a part-time job. It wasn’t long before Nosova’s mental health took a hit.

“I felt so hopeless,” she said.“I felt I needed to make a Plan B for myself.“

After she realized that she had spread herself too thin, she decided to take a step back and focus on herself in her final year. As she put it, “I lost myself in the process of pampering my resume and chasing all the experience.”

Unfortunately, I fell prey to the same trap in my second year. After feeling insecure about my accomplishments in first year, I decided to branch out. I began the 2020-2021 school year with a plan to get involved in as much as possible, but the bleak reality of the ongoing pandemic prevented me from truly achieving this goal. It wasn’t until my third year that I succeeded in my plan to try and get involved as much as possible.

Unfortunately, even that semester didn’t play out how I had planned. Things quickly went off the rails. When I wasn't working on-campus, I found myself locked away in my bedroom. As the semester dragged on, I watched as dishes piled up in my room. The period between my meals and showers lengthened, and I lost entire days as I lay in my bed. I was in a never-ending fight with my depression. Worse, I was shackled by a gut-wrenching feeling of anxiety because I couldn't do what I set out to do. I was losing. By the time December came around, I didn’t even recognize myself. I was now 15 pounds lighter. My usual outgoing and energetic nature was gone, and I had officially hit a low I didn’t know existed. I was burnt out.

A Mental Health Crisis and Student Burnout

The mental crisis I experienced was by no means unique. That semester, whenever I wanted to see that other students were feeling the same way, all I would have had to do was check the r/mcgill subreddit.

The feeling that you aren't good enough to be at McGill comes as no surprise when you consider the image the university attempts to uphold. The institution prides itself on being ranked as a top research university globally and consistently reminds the public of its notable alumni.

Of course, the mental health crisis includes a population much larger than the McGill student body. For example, a survey conducted by Ohio State University found that between August 2020 and April 2021, students who screened positive for depression or anxiety increased by four per cent. As a result, the rate of student burnout increased from 40 to 71 per cent. Additionally, findings from the American College Health Association - Canadian Reference Group's 2019 executive summary found that 51.6 per cent of students have felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, 68.9 per cent felt overwhelming anxiety, and 16.4 per cent have seriously considered suicide within the past 12 months. These numbers have only increased since the pandemic began.

Considering this shared feeling and its effect on the mental health crisis at McGill and across other Canadian universities, one might think that the university would make students’ well-being one of their main priorities. But after I had a conversation with Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) vice-president (VP) Student Life Karla Heisele Cubilla regarding SSMU's role in the mental health and well-being of students, I learned this isn’t necessarily the case. Heisele Cubilla believes that the mental health problem at McGill is largely structural. While McGill has a clinic, branded as the Wellness Hub, students have consistently faced barriers in accessing mental healthcare. Most students will face long and discouraging wait times before they can get help.

When Claire Downie, SSMU VP University Affairs, and Cubilla presented their concerns about the Wellness Hub with the Committee on Student Services , the meeting didn’t go well. According to Heisele Cubilla, the Committee said, "We are not a hospital, we do not have the resources for that. "

In the absence of adequate mental health resources, some students have had to come up with their own solutions to cope with the stress. Many students, for instance, have turned to study drugs, taking prescription stimulants like Ritalin, Adderall, and Vyvanse that are usually prescribed to people with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

University Life

In the midst of the pandemic, some students are turning away from university altogether. College enrollment rates have dropped dramatically since COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Enrollment at U.S. colleges dropped by approximately 560,000 students between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020. Although this drop-off may be a consequence of the pandemic's unique stress, it also tells us something about the model of the university itself. For many, the university workload is simply unsustainable.

“While I believe that the culture to hustle at McGill may be more prevalent than at other universities, I think that one of the major contributing factors to students having poor mental health is the competitive nature of university in general,” wrote Avery Martin, a former McGill student now enrolled at the University of British Columbia, in an email to The McGill Tribune.

For one, Avery cited the stress of meeting admission standards to even get in––a cycle that doesn’t end at the undergraduate level. Many students come into McGill already aiming for graduate or medical school, meaning the pressure is on at the start.

Martin admits that while he was at McGill, he felt like the only true measure of success was high grades. Consumed by school, he barely slept, failed to eat well, and neglected physical activity. The combination of these things left him feeling so burnt out that he withdrew from McGill in his second year.

"To say that I was miserable was an understatement,” Martin said. “My mental health had deteriorated to a point where it wasn't realistic to continue at this current point in time."

Now, at UBC, Martin’s mental health has improved after taking the time to reflect on his time at McGill and improve different aspects of his life. Regardless of his negative experience, Martin believes his time spent at McGill acted as an important reality check. As he puts it, if he had never reached his breaking point, he never would have sought positive change.

Moving Towards Solutions

When I started research for this article, I never anticipated finding a solution to the problem. It’s certainly true that hustle culture and the ongoing mental health crisis is prevalent at many universities, as it is in society. But it remains true that the McGill administration could better support their student's well-being.

McGill has tried. Recently, they posted an announcement on MyCourses reminding students that if they are feeling overwhelmed, there are resources accessible to them. They’ve also emailed out a graphic-filled, three-page PDF offered by the Office of the Dean of Students, which recommends students practice mindfulness. Although this is a start, it’s far from perfect. While it is important for a university to remind students about self-care, they shouldn’t consider their job done yet. After all, self-care is far less effective if the institution lacks sound support systems. The administration needs to start listening to the needs of their student body and addressing the mental health crisis at a structural level––rather than attempting to put a bandaid over a bullet wound by preaching mindfulness to their students.

Illustrations by Xiaotian Wang, Design Editor