The University of Alberta announced two student deaths in October and November last year, both coupled with messaging pressing students to access mental health services. Though the university has never confirmed it in writing, the intuitive student body wasn’t misguided in assuming these “non-criminal” student deaths were suicides.
Following the announcements of these deaths, there’s been a marked upswing in rhetoric surrounding preventative mental health strategies on campus. We may not realize it now, but this rhetoric may be preventing us from saving more student lives.
These programs are incredibly important — they have, and continue to, save lives. However, urging universities to fund and students to access a myriad of mental health services distracts from the fact that university itself doesn’t foster an environment of mental health — if anything, the expectations placed on university students are only driving them to desperate measures.
We all know the most prestigious after-degree programs and jobs demand its applicants abide by beauty standards of busyness: unless you have the most extra-curricular activities and radiant transcripts, you need not apply. Being a good person is an asset — but make sure you back that up with a handful of glowing reference letters.
The culture around university rewards stress with social currency, too. Nights of zero sleep and days fuelled by caffeine pills are smugly worn like badges of honour. Hard work is good, we’re told, and it’s better to look panicky than lazy. Anxiety, depression and other debilitating mental illnesses are just a job hazard.
Unsurprisingly, university students suffer dismal mental health rates. In a 2011 U of A survey on mental health, 61.7 per cent of students surveyed felt “very lonely” in the last 12 months. A worrisome 34.3 per cent said they were “so depressed it was difficult to function.” 1.2 per cent attempted suicide. When extrapolated to reflect the entire student population, the report estimates that within 12 months of the survey being released, 426 students tried to kill themselves — almost enough to fit a CCIS lecture hall.
But considering the toxic culture of western education, why are these statistics shocking?
If the university’s Clinical and Counselling Services gets bigger, only more people will fill its seats — the behemoth that is student mental health issues won’t be “solved.” Proactive services simply provide a crucial resource for those who already need help, while some students too overwhelmed by their day-to-day responsibilities will never access these services in the first place.
Of course, this is just a reflection of the greater capitalist system that we live in. Almost everyone, save for the rare few who actually love their jobs, will nod their heads when you talk about the soul-sucking “culture of busy.” The institutions that mould the workers of the future for the job market (universities) are obviously going to groom their students for the parallel world outside of it.
The shift that’s needed in universities isn’t one policy or a new program: we need a flipping of the entire paradigm that Western civilization is built on. Sounds easy enough, right?
It’s likely that we’ll never see the entire overturning of university culture in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start making small impacts in our immediate community. Stop applauding your friends’ all-nighters if it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. Have conversations with your friends that are more stimulating and productive than comparing how many hours you studied this week. Be the one quiet voice that reminds your friend they’re a valuable and exceptional human in ways beyond what’s depicted on their transcript and resume.
The things that helped me more than a free yoga class in Rutherford or free granola bars in HUB were conversations with other people, specifically people who reminded me that I can still live a healthy and fulfilling life without abiding by society’s standards of “success.” This resonated exponentially more with me than any well-intentioned Post-It note on a bathroom stall telling me to “keep my head up” and keep studying hard. Learning that university and my future career aren’t the end-all, be-all to my life’s satisfaction made me realize that even if I study hard, I might not get an A or the career of my dreams — and that’s okay.
Suggesting people in a dark place simply shrug on a positive attitude to rid themselves of their mental health struggles is painfully naive, as it implies ill people have the power to cure themselves, and even that they got themselves in this situation based on their attitudes. They don’t and they didn’t.
What I am suggesting, though, is that we think critically about how we take our society’s definition of success for granted and reproduce it in our education system, to the point of driving people to their breaking points.
Flushing programs and initiatives with money is far easier than challenging the building blocks of our livelihoods. But, by placing our faith in Band-Aid solutions, we’re missing out on an important conversation — one that could save lives.