Every year thousands of new students take their first steps onto university campuses throughout the province. For many, this represents a significant milestone in their lives, a start of a new journey filled with opportunity, self-discovery, and new adventure. However, this new journey is not without its own unique challenges. From the moment students begin their university experience, they are inundated with materials detailing who to reach out to in times of crisis, where resources are located, and how to best manage their mental wellbeing while looking out for crisis in their peers. And yet on Western University’s campus, a place I consider my second home, four students died by suicide last year. The previous year that number was at least two. And the year before that another two students died by suicide. Even one suicide each year is too much and we must come to realise that there is a mental health crisis on our campuses and something more has to be done to address it. While we’ve done a fantastic job as students talking about breaking the stigma – which is integral to ensure that those who need help can get it – we have failed to look inwards at the destructive aspects of university culture.
First, as more students look to get the upper hand in the job market, students often overburden themselves with unsustainable expectations accompanied by a culture of extreme competitiveness. For instance, to get into medical school, students are expected to maintain a near perfect GPA while being heavily involved in other extracurriculars, only to be one of the roughly 14% of Ontario applicants that are admitted into medical school each year. Similar pressures affect all students. In a job market where a bachelor’s degree no longer holds the same clout as it used to, students have to find other ways to stand out resulting in students taking on more than they can handle. Managing a part-time job, maintaining a high GPA, and getting involved in one’s campus and community is a monumental task which leaves little room for socializing and de-stressing.
Additionally, the way we choose to cope with stress comes with its issues too. Central to the university experience is partying as well as the rampant binge drinking and drug use that comes along with it. To escape from the constant pressure for success and to maintain good grades, excessive drinking as a coping mechanism in lieu of adequate mental health resources has become a normalized behavior. And while drinking alcohol and using illicit drugs itself does not cause mental health issues,it greatly exacerbates the condition of those already afflicted by a mental illness. It is also worth mentioning that such social behaviours are reflective of Eurocentric values, and consequently, certain students may feel isolated if alcohol consumption and partying are not within their cultural norms. A significant issue that comes with partying environments, and specifically the bar scene, is the perpetuation of rape culture and sexual aggression. Survivors are often shamed for excessive drinking and their inability to consent isn’t acknowledged due to their inebriated state being wrongfully viewed as an invitation for sexual activity. This dismissive attitude toward one’s trauma has untold consequences on the mental wellbeing of survivors.
Lastly, we have failed to listen to the voices of minority groups on our campuses and left many of them feeling alienated and ignored. This past year I had the pleasure of serving on Western’s LGBTQ2+ Student Issues Sub-Committee and I saw firsthand how difficult it was for students who identify as LGBTQ2+ to simply have their university documentation and student ID acknowledge their identity.
So what more can we do to address this crisis? While large scale funding from the provincial government (who is providing $1.9 billion over ten years in mental health funding thanks to efforts from OUSA and other student advocacy organizations) goes a long way, the real change starts with efforts at each of our institutions and in taking on these destructive elements of our university culture that perpetuate poor mental wellbeing standards and practices.
For instance, implementing pass/fail credits provides students with an opportunity to explore new interests without the stress of maintaining a high grade. While “grace periods” for assignment deadlines give students a brief respite which goes a long way to ease the stresses of university. Both of these are straightforward policy proposals that have already been implemented at various institutions throughout the province.
Meanwhile, teaching about the importance of consent, especially when alcohol or other drugs are involved, as well as respect for our fellow students is integral in preventing mental health crises which stem from sexual violence and the perpetuation of rape culture.
Although competition will always be present, and its existence is necessary to challenge us to grow as individuals, it’s also important to highlight that academics and certain professional and graduate programs are not the be all and end all of one’s university experience. With the promotion of experiential learning programs as well as career fairs across campus, students can be exposed to alternative pathways, should their first option fall through.
We must also recognise that marginalized communities have unique needs which must be considered when developing mental health and support services. We should be actively listening to the voices of marginalised groups instead of disregarding their unique lived experiences or dictating changes that are meant to create a more inclusive environment, while recognizing that they know best how to remedy past injustices and ensure that they feel included on campus.
Addressing the mental health and wellbeing crisis on our campuses is not only about tackling the stigma surrounding mental health. Every time we lose another one of our classmates, our friends, our family, we vow to do better. Well, it is about time we did just that. The first step in addressing a problem is recognizing that we have one, and it’s about time we acknowledge that our university culture is costing lives.