The fight to understand the crisis

Why we need to know more about student mental health


Dear editor,

The Star ran an article a week ago on Navi Dhanota, saying that she’d “won” her “mental health fight”. That fight was the right to not disclose her mental health diagnosis in order to register for academic supports. She has a point: we have a right to privacy. Those on the other side also had a point: they wanted to better match her with help appropriate to her needs. The common thread might run: Who has the right to assess her needs?

In an opinion piece a few days later, Heather Mallick argues that the eventual ruling was a step backward, because treating the knowledge of your diagnosis as a source of stigma from which you have to shield yourself runs counter to the laudable new trend of treating mental health or illness as something factual, something to put on the table without fear of judgement. Mental health diagnoses “are facts, not sources of shame”, Mallick writes. (She later goes too far, apparently deploring even the fact that we’ve begun to distinguish and refine our definitions of mental health, because she fears that they’ll become nebulous and easy to exploit.)

More to my point, she goes on to say that all the mental health incorporation at universities “obscures the central element, which is the learning itself”, being that “professors and students are on an intellectual mission together” in which students can’t expect endless accommodation.

Also too far, but a phenomenon we have to pay attention to. Because, judging by the aptly titled article “Schools tend to the student soul” in Saturday’s Star, Mallick’s words are fast becoming an unreasonable characterization of postsecondary education. Colleges and universities have taken in massive numbers of students and many of them are ill-prepared. “The Ivory Tower is becoming a kindler, gentler, more emotionally nurturing institution,” writes Louise Brown in that article. This is already the reality, regardless of any debate about whether it should or shouldn’t be, so Mallick had better catch up.

But why is it becoming this way? That’s the question I wanted badly to deal with during my time as editor of The Medium, but the feature article I had in mind never had the space in my and my reporters’ lives that it would have required. What started me thinking about it was a 2012 Maclean’s article on escalating student suicide rates. Student mental health is a very complex issue, and there are two equally important voices to contribute: our own as students and the statistical one from outside observers. The Star article, for example, says campus officials put it down to the fact that students “are distraught at their job prospects, unequipped to stickhandle life without their parents’ help, and caught in a social-media pressure cooker from which they dare not unplug”.

Each of these is a potentially huge topic, and even if those summaries ring true or false, there are points to explore in them. Maybe our job prospects really are terrible: What are the figures like for employment after graduation? What do we believe about those figures? Maybe we really are suffering from extended, coddled adolescence, exacerbated by what Terry McQuaid at Seneca puts down to “the all-students-must-pass philosophy” that means our “skills in math and literary aren’t what they should be”, as quoted in the article. Maybe social media and social stress really have crippled us emotionally, as a student quoted in the article puts it when she says that thanks to cripplingly enabling technology, “we’re more isolated than we’ve ever been”. Maybe, as Mallick implies, students have been taking advantage of accommodation, rather than pinpointing their real needs. Maybe these mental health statistics were always true but the social climate prevented their being recognized until now. Maybe we face more pressure from our parents, who see us staying longer and longer at home and don’t know how to gently express their concerns about our ability to support ourselves in the future. Maybe there’s just such a huge intake to universities that many people who are there don’t have their strength in academia, but in something else, and are struggling desperately to adapt to something that’s not right for them just because a bachelor’s degree is the new high school degree and the de facto prerequisite for a good job—if one is even waiting for us. Maybe, as it was put a couple of years ago by the then-VP equity of UTMSU, the “root cause” of mental health issues is higher and higher tuition fees that we have trouble paying, spending our time outside of class not studying or sleeping or socializing but working at Denny’s.

It could be any of these reasons. Or all of them. And more besides. Whatever it is, it’s a huge problem and only going to get worse. And universities are saddled with it. Whether or not they’re prepared. Whether or not it’s their job. So they will try to make accommodations, and they will hire more and more health staff and run more and more sessions, all on tight budgets (which Mallick points out are “swallowed” by “a phalanx of highly paid administrators”), and try to diagnose each student’s needs.

From an individual student’s point of view, the right to privacy over her diagnosis may be a victory. But there’s a much bigger story playing out and I’m desperate to see good, informed coverage that rings true to the experiences of me and my friends and coworkers. In that story, the more we know, the better.

Luke Sawczak
Editor-in-Chief 2013-15

This article has been corrected from the print edition. It used the term “mental health” where “mental health issues” was intended. A notice will be printed in the February 1, 2016 issue.