Taking Responsibility: Student Wellness and Mental Health

Memorial University is known for its high-quality education, the respected faculty, active student body, picturesque campus, immense program offerings and the positive impacts its alumni have had on Canadian society. These positive attributes are not to be neglected in light of what I am about to say. But there is more to university in 2016 than just academics. Student mental health is one of the hottest topics on digital news sites. It is spoken about regularly at panel discussions. We have hotlines and fundraisers and weeks of recognition of mental health problems in this country. More needs to be done.

“Engaging youth for mental health and wellness”

“The Wellness Program is designed to educate students about self-care and healthy lifestyles.We offer health education programs…”

“Student Health is here to help you maintain physical and mental wellness and help you thrive at university”

“Memorial University hopes a new app will help students identify what makes them feel good and what makes them feel bad – and improve their mental health.”

These are just a few of the responses to a Google search for “mental health memorial university”. Of course, it is important that students take responsibility for their own mental and physical wellness. And of course, it is good that the university implements policies and programs that aim to improve – or at least not diminish-  students’ mental health while at school. Interestingly, none of the first results that come up speak to what the university staff and professors (aside from those in the health and wellness clinics) can do for students, particularly those with anxiety or depression. Students are expected to take responsibility, to make an appointment, connect with a therapist, alter their schedules and practice ‘self-care’, whatever that means. Social media is filled with lists of how to have a better morning, ways to encourage self-love, and methods for journaling, lighting candles, and going to bed earlier, all meant to address the epidemic of mental health concerns among young people, in Newfoundland, and in Canada.

Nationally, university communication offices issue statements after students commit suicides. News outlets publish endless, tragic commentary from family and friends following these events. Administrators and professors wonder what else they could have done. Really? You wonder what else you could have done? The number of people and organizations taking responsibility – and sometimes blame – for students’ mental health problems is growing daily. But the group that seems to fail to acknowledge and act on these tragedies are the university staff. Yes, increasing funding for mental health services is important. But the staff, professors and instructors at universities across Canada have a crucial role to play, and they are failing.

When a professor has office hours and fails to appear for them, when you book a meeting and the professor doesn’t show – this is not only disrespectful, but anxiety causing. When the university fails to acknowledge what courses the students require to graduate, or decide not to offer required courses that have been promised to students – do they know the stress this causes? When the student’s union offers services that are meant to make students safer, like shuttle buses and other programming, but cancels them arbitrarily, do they know that we notice, and feel left out to dry? Does the registrar’s office understand what it costs – financially, and emotionally- when required courses aren’t offered, and we are forced to stay on for another term, or another year? The cost to students of being away from their homes and families, of worrying about money and the heat bill, of not knowing whether or not they need a place to live for the summer, or whether or not to apply to grad school? The stress of university work and classes is high to begin with. When professors start their term by reading old course evaluation questionnaires from past students in order to emphasize what behaviours they are not prepared to change about themselves or their teaching – do they imagine this is useful? When you ask a simple question about course selection and receive an answer that is incomprehensible, and when you ask for a form or a meeting to find out if you can ever escape from this institution, you’re told you can’t have more than one a year or per month, or some other seemingly arbitrary rule, does the university think this is improving our mental health? There are highly educated, intelligent people working in all those offices in Arts and Administration. Do you think they recognize the role they have to play in the mental health of their students?

I am sure there are students who handle all of these blips with grace, or maybe who go through their four, or five, or six year degrees without encountering any of these issues. And there are dozens of administrators and professors who are working harder, staying later, and advocating more for students. But for those of us who experience the stresses of navigating university logistics – separate and apart from university work – it’s enough to give you anxiety. If you were not depressed already, being told you had to stay in school another term that you can’t afford because that one English course, contrary to what you were told, wasn’t actually ever going to be offered can break you.

If administrators are operating an educational institution, that’s fine. Let’s educate to the highest standard possible. Let’s see professors willing to wait an extra fifteen minutes after their office hours are over so a working student can make it to campus to see them. Let’s see the staff in the registrar’s office do an extra ten percent – not above and beyond their job description, just the part they aren’t doing right now. Let’s see those emails answered before deadlines pass. Let’s see mutual respect between instructors and students, not an abuse of power and defensive responses to thoughtful course evaluations. Please, let’s not see more money pushed into supposed ‘mental health initiatives’ that place all responsibility on students’ shoulders. First, let’s acknowledge that if staff, administrators and professors put as much thought into how to help students in their own jobs, instead of pushing us from one office to the next, we might not have as many students needing to avail of the mental health services. Let’s bring some humanity back to universities, and behave like the empathetic humans we all are.

Encouraging students to consider what makes them feel poorly, and what might make them feel better is a great step. But does the university fear that maybe what is making us feel anxious, depressed, and really like we shouldn’t be here at all, might just be them?