Editorial, Opinion

The Wellness Hub can’t solve McGill’s mental health crisis

Content warning: Mentions of suicide

Funded by a $14 million donation, McGill opened its Student Wellness Hub in 2019. Since its inception, the centre has been understaffed and strained by unreasonably long wait times for students seeking help. At McGill, there is an urgent need for accessible mental health services and resources: Over eight per cent of McGill students identify as disabled and an astounding 56.3 per cent of students reported having mental health disorders. As of 2019, 16.4 per cent of Canadian university students had seriously considered suicide. While it is critical to address the Wellness Hub’s marked insufficiency, the university must address the systemic shortcomings that both enable and foster a toxic academic environment.

Students should not have to turn to their universities to receive emergency care, but McGill must recognize that Quebec’s health care system is extremely underfunded, short staffed, and overwhelmed. Furthermore, racialized people are significantly more likely to be undertreated and mistreated in Canadian healthcare institutions. As a result, many McGill students have few other options than the Wellness Hub for affordable care. Yet, the Wellness Hub itself is not even equipped to help students in crisis who require immediate attention. Wait times for psychiatry appointments at the centre can be as long as two weeks for cases deemed urgent, and up to 10 weeks for others. The university has consistently reiterated that the Wellness Hub is not supposed to serve as a primary care provider for its students, but rather as a supplemental service that they have graciously offered. This, however, does not absolve the university from its responsibility to take urgent action.

At McGill, there is an endemic culture of celebrating competitiveness and academic achievement at the expense of mental health, and the university actively contributes to this culture. For instance, U2 Architecture students were informed, after registration had already opened, that they would be required to either take 20 academic credits this fall or delay their graduation by an extra semester. The university’s punitive final exam policy similarly exemplifies its unforgiving attitude. Students that seek more than one exam deferral must provide documentation, as well as a written explanation for their request, unless the student has COVID-19. If it appears that a student has not made an adequate effort to address the challenges they have been facing, their deferral requests can be refused. The austere and cynical language employed in the exam policy, underscored by unnecessary assumptions of bad faith, subjects students already wavering under the stress of exams to additional barriers. 

McGill’s mental health crisis must be examined at every level of the institution, starting with day-to-day interactions in the classroom. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a psychological toll on university staff, as faculty workloads are increasing and general academic stress has been on the rise. The precarity of tenure-track professors’ occupational status creates a stressful working environment, in turn leading to unsympathetic and antagonistic interactions between faculty and students. Additionally, much like at most Canadian universities, Black and Indigenous faculty at McGill are systemically underrepresented, creating an isolating and discouraging climate for marginalized students on campus. Overwhelmed students of colour and queer students may feel less comfortable seeking academic accommodations from their professors than their straight, white, cisgender peers. Furthermore, rising tuition costs, food insecurity, and an ableist post-pandemic climate on campus have created a psychologically harmful environment.

Too much of the burden of accessing mental health services at McGill falls upon its students, and the networks that are supposed to accommodate students’ needs fail to do so. As such, the university must hire additional mental health professionals, while focusing on increasing capacity and expanding resources. The university’s refusal to acknowledge its role in the mental health crisis precludes any meaningful work necessary to combat the systemic dimensions of the problem. The Wellness Hub’s inadequacy is one urgent problem that has relatively straightforward solutions; however, the McGill administration and faculty must work to untangle its systemic web of toxic competitiveness, ableism, academic stress, and structural racism in order to make any headway in solving its mental health crisis.

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