University has brought with it a plethora of advantages – more so now when more and more citizens require post-secondary education to attain stable employment. There is a trend towards acquiring at least a bachelor’s degree, and a culture of downplaying credentials of those who don’t. Aside from these societal conventions, post-secondary also comes with a set of viscous impacts on those attending, causing significant mental health problems – which can sometimes become lethal.
Students are becoming more and more susceptible to mental health problems which require community and institutional responses. Institutions, however, have been failing immensely according to students affected themselves or friends/family members of those impacted. There have been problems in university responses to vulnerable students looking for aid and support, including instances of deflection or counterproductive treatment of those facing crises. At University of Toronto, for example, there have been instances of students facing mental health crises being placed in handcuffs, or otherwise involved with the police rather than directed to constructive and direct social aid or services. These instances are not only unnecessary, but also traumatizing to students involved.
Receiving emails from our universities about “taking mental health days,” or “remembering to practice self care” are no longer cute or cutting it. Students need concrete services, aside from one or two volunteer-run clubs per institution which provide little or no access to professional therapy or counselling resources. It also should not have to be the students’ job to form their own mental health services to heal the mental lesions caused by institutional failure – whether it’s increasingly unaffordable tuition or incompetency of faculty, or inappropriate crisis responses. So, why is the institutional response to the decline of student mental health so painfully subpar? The answer may very well lie in the one thing that seems to take precedence over human life and wellbeing: money.
Providing resources and training faculty needs to be factored into institutional budgets. The lack of attention to mental health response is costing students their lives. 90 counsellors in a school of 90,000 students is almost laughable – if our tuition is increasing steadily then so should the resources available to us; this claim is based on the fact that, especially when facing a worldwide pandemic, financial stress is a huge risk factor for depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. In a recent survey , 77% of returning university students in Canada were extremely concerned about money and finance, and 46% were concerned about an inability to afford tuition in Fall 2020.
In the span of 10 years, from 2007 to 2017, emergency hospital visits spurred by a mental health concern in Canada for those aged 5 to 24 increased 75%. Due to shifts to remote learning and work, students have lost support networks, jobs, and gained increased bouts of anxiety and depression. The degrees they are trying to obtain have also become foggy in the sense that the job market is volatile and unpredictable; this leaves students wondering whether all their stress, money, and time will even allow them to secure a stable job.
The strategies for battling the pandemic and general stresses involved with post secondary are far from satisfactory, being more aftermath-oriented than preventative in their approach – and sometimes not even that. Students may be put on incredibly long waitlists for counselors, and “mandatory academic leaves” if seen as “a danger to self or others.” These forced leaves bar the opportunity for students to reach out and seek aid, and instill a fear of “being kicked out” if they need to ask for help. What needs to change is faculty attitudes and communication, tuition and budget reformation and consideration involving therapy and affordability, and far more accessible mental health resources funded by the institutions themselves – especially for the financially unstable, which encompasses many students. “Protective barriers” on buildings to stop people from committing suicide seem much less effective than instilling programs, services, and resources to reverse and heal suicidal ideation and various forms of school/financial stress related traumas.
Universities have a responsibility to provide support and avenues of aid for their students – especially when institutional lack of affordability and faculty incompetence are some of the driving factors for student mental health decline. Pressuring these post-secondary institutions and spreading awareness about the lack of support is crucial. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened people’ conditions in unimaginable ways, due to grief, loss of income and lives, remote work/study stress, and general anxiety brought on by thousands of people falling ill and passing away globally. If students don’t demand these basic rights, then institutions will continue to mishandle our mental health. We are not just numbers or statistics – we are humans with needs and rights that should be fulfilled by the institutions that we are giving our money, time, and large portions of our lives to. We have said it countless times before, but I will say it here again: your mental health matters and you are more than just a GPA.