On Oct. 24, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) hosted a Q&A panel to address questions regarding the state of mental health at McGill. Only 16 students attended the panel out of a population of over 39,000. Whether the low attendance rate was due to the stress of midterms season or a lack of knowledge about the event, it is clear that mental health and related policy is not the main priority for many students. This is a symptom of the university’s culture, which places more emphasis on academic rigour than on the well-being of its students.
As a student in the university, this is troubling. Mental health problems should not be an expected part of the McGill experience. It is the institution’s role to mitigate and prevent factors that may contribute to psychological issues of its students.
Mental health issues are characterized by the Public Health Agency of Canada as “alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour (or some combination thereof) associated with significant distress and impaired functioning.” A 2014 McGill report on data from the 2012 and 2014 Counselling and Mental Health Benchmark Study revealed that McGill students reported higher academic distress and depression in comparison to American benchmarks. This report also indicated high levels of anxiety amongst students and a perceived lack of social support from the community and peers.
In response to the growing psychological problems on campus, McGill has developed several initiatives, including an online McGill Mental Health Hub, as well as student-initiated events like the Mental Health Awareness Week. In addition, McGill Counselling and Mental Health Services (MCMHS) has recently implemented the “stepped-care” model. However, as was reiterated by speakers at the Q&A panel, these clinics do not have an adequate number of professionals nor the space to address the needs of every student.
The reality is that no matter how many resources are available, academic distress plays a large role in students’ lives. This is a symptom of the campus’ culture of excellence. To be clear, McGill’s problem is not its high-achieving character. McGill attracts many of its students because of its academic excellence; the workload is understandably demanding. The academic demands and stressful environment become problematic when students prioritize their grades and work over their mental wellness. Often, mental health only becomes a concern after students have reached a tipping point of psychological distress.
McGill must focus on preventing mental health issues from arising in the first place. To do so, there must be systemic change that involves shifting McGill’s framework to prioritize the wellbeing of its students over its academic achievements. As McGill’s report indicates, when campuses prioritize mental and physical wellness, students learn better and are more satisfied and engaged.
Ideally, specialized mental health prevention training should happen within faculties to create a more centralized culture of mental wellness, which makes self-care an essential component of students’ academic experiences. For example, McGill’s Schulich School of Music has a mandatory mental health training and mentorship plan, prompted by the high levels of anxiety and stress in the faculty itself. This initiative enrolls incoming students in a compulsory class in music professional development, which provides comprehensive training in mental and physical wellness. The program also matches new students with mentors and provides access to a music student well-being hub.
Yet, a large population of McGill students are in the Arts, Science, Engineering, and Management faculties. These departments also foster competitive environments, but do not have specialized mental health programs to directly address the issues. In the Faculty of Arts, professors often run through the course curriculum and academic demands, only to bring up mental health as a side note and remind students that they should not hesitate to seek out student services. After that slight briefing, class resumes, and mental health is once again placed on the back-burner.
McGill is making strides to provide better mental health services and awareness, but there is room for improvement in terms of prevention and integration of services at the faculty level. If the poor attendance at the Q&A panel is any indication, there must be a stronger shift towards addressing the pervasive presence of mental health issues on campus. For McGill, that requires recognizing that the well-being of students is the primary concern.
It disheartens me that mental illness is normalizes at McGill, a place where people come to build a future for themselves. I assume that students what to be happy and satisfied once they land a good job after university, but if students don’t have an environment that encourages a balanced lifestyle, it’s likely that they will continue this habit of self-neglect – sleep deprivation, unhealthy diet, less relationship building – while sacrificing their health for the pursuit of ‘excellence’ even after their student years. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said “the means must be as pure as the ends we seek”.
I think McGill’s mental health services are doing a great job in mediating this issue. As students, we can start by addressing the tendencies to glorify business and ignore our own health by developing better habits and taking advantage of resources on campus. We can alter the competitive attitude from the bottom-up by adopting the view that one person’s success is good for the whole community and does not diminish the success of another person.