The realities of social anxiety on campus

By Erica Stefano

When I was 17, my therapist told me how excited she was for me to go to college. It would be a clean slate—a new opportunity to make friends with similar interests and to get out of my comfort zone. Throughout my teenage years, the therapist’s office had become an all-too familiar environment to me: Sun-lit, with a view of the public library, quiet classical music, children’s toys, and gaudy, celebrity-clad magazines arranged in the waiting area. I was hesitantly optimistic—my high school years had been defined by my virtual invisibility in classes and seemingly perpetual identity as an outcast.

For me, like for many others, college was promised to be an opportunity. I soon realized my naivety during my first months at McGill. I told myself that I would become what I had perceived as ‘normal,’ make friends, join clubs, and go to events. What became of my determination was one-time attendance at clubs, excessive amounts of time spent in corners kept company by only a plateful of free food, and fleeting relationships that would soon disappear once the semester ended. The feeling of living with some 744 people in New Residence Hall did nothing to curb the void of loneliness I felt.

Julia, U1 Science, describes her initial experiences at McGill in similar terms.

“During my first semester, I [had] barely gone to class, and I was always stressed out and anxious to go to classes if I had to,” Julia said. “It seemed that people already had groups of people they sat with and [were] uninterested in socializing any further. As a result, I isolated myself further by eating alone, rarely going out, feeling depressed, and doing nothing about it.”

“McGill is a fairly large community,” Julia said. “It can be intimidating and difficult to maintain relationships with people.

The phenomenon of social anxiety is relatively common. Most students can relate to the cold sweat before a class presentation or an itchiness when in large crowds. Social phobia, defined by Statistics Canada as “a disorder characterized by a fear of situations in which there is potential for embarrassment or humiliation in front of others” is listed as one of the most common anxiety disorders by Statistics Canada. Helen Costin, a clinician at the Rossy Student Wellness Hub, spoke to The McGill Tribune about the prominence of social phobias on McGill campus.

“Twenty to thirty per cent of the clients I see struggle with issues pertaining to making friends, handling social interactions, and [the] fear of being rejected by their peers” Costin said.

As social interaction is an integral part of the human experience, social anxiety can have a profound effect on one’s life. Those who suffer from social anxiety avoid job interviews, presentations, and class participation at all costs. Not only is it difficult to be around and talk to others, but common tasks such as going to the grocery store also require mental preparation.

Jason Arnold, U2 Arts, describes social anxiety as a constant presence.

“It means that plans come with asterisks, that being around people is an activity which requires an exit strategy, and, more than anything, it comes with the unpleasant sensation of being aware of your own irrationality without being able to correct it,” Arnold said.

A common misconception is that Social Anxiety Disorder can be equated with introversion. As a result, loved ones who may have the best intentions will frequently push a socially anxious person into uncomfortable situations, urging them to make friends and open up. Teri Phillips, director of the Office for Students with Disabilities, explained the important distinctions between common shyness and social anxiety.

“Those students with Social Anxiety Disorder are experiencing a level of fear with regard to social interactions that are, by definition, preventing them from developing their relationships and/or academic career fully,” Phillips said.

Social anxiety, like many other mental illnesses, presents barriers for those who suffer from it at McGill and beyond. Many arts classes, for example, include a mandatory participation component in weekly conferences. Social skills are considered vital to both academic success and to obtaining a job later on. Costin spoke to the profound effect social anxiety has on decision-making processes.

“Twenty to thirty per cent of the clients I see struggle with issues pertaining to making friends, handling social interactions, and [the] fear of being rejected by their peers”

“A person with social anxiety may go to great lengths to avoid social interactions and will make choices based on avoiding these interactions,” Costin said. “For example, a person who has social anxiety may avoid social interaction altogether for fear of being negatively judged by others.”

For those living with social anxiety, avoidance can become a vicious cycle leading to complete isolation. When one repeatedly has negative interactions with others in which they feel they are left out or judged, they will naturally avoid others, reinforcing their belief that they are, indeed, completely and utterly alone. Perhaps the worst part is when the person realizes they have no one but themself to blame.

“[Social anxiety] is that [...] feeling of inevitability, the Sword of Damocles reminding you that, at some point, you will say or do something horribly, irreversibly, inescapably wrong,” Arnold said. “It is the awareness that you are about to be the cause of your own ostracization, the tension that comes as you wonder whether or not it would have been better to leave sooner. It’s waiting for a horror that will never materialize.”

It wasn’t until some two years after arriving at McGill, when just going outside, let alone confronting others, had become unendurable to the point of contemplating taking my own life, that I received a diagnosis for moderately severe Social Anxiety Disorder. This was only after a month of waiting after being referred to Psychiatric Services from my initial safety appointment with Counselling Services. I was lucky to have my crisis after finals season. During the regular school year, wait times for Counselling Services alone infamously often span weeks. With resources stretched thin, these preliminary wait times are combined with two months or more for an appointment with a psychiatrist after referral.

The lack of efficient and effective resources for those struggling with social anxiety and isolation as a whole becomes of particular issue when examining its growing prevalence at McGill and other universities. Vera Romano, director of the Rossy Student Wellness Hub, spoke with the Tribune about the growing phenomenon across post-secondary institutions.

“What we’re seeing in the data is that students across Canada and the United States are reporting increasing feelings of loneliness and anxiety,” Romano said. “It’s a phenomenon that touches all university campuses, not just McGill.”

One does not have to go past the front page of the McGill subreddit to find posts by students feeling lonely and otherwise isolated from the broader McGill community. “Why the McGill experience is so lonely?” one post asks, “McGill students with friends, how did you make them?” ponders another.

“[Social anxiety] is that [...] feeling of inevitability, the Sword of Damocles reminding you that, at some point, you will say or do something horribly, irreversibly, inescapably wrong.”

“McGill is a fairly large community,” Julia said. “It can be intimidating and difficult to maintain relationships with people. It’s not a tight community like some other schools are, meaning there’s less school spirit and more individual life. It takes more effort and initiative to find people that have similar interests and personalities.”

In particular, McGill Counselling Services offers group therapy for those with Social Anxiety, or those “who experience intense anxiety in either social or performance situations due to a fear of humiliation or embarrassment.” However, these groups are intended to be short-term solutions, lasting only one semester or less. McGill Psychiatric Services offer no individual, one-on-one cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), leaving it up to students to find help outside of McGill. Many outside clinics are inaccessible to international students, who have to find clinics that are covered by insurance.

Julia recently created the subreddit /r/lonelymcgill, dedicated to helping others who feel similarly isolated on campus.

“I believe that, by talking about the issue, discussing thoughts and coming up with solutions in an anonymous environment could help people take initiative to be more involved in the social scene at McGill,” Julia said.

The McGill subreddit also holds meet-ups, hoping to aid those who have a hard time making friends and confronting the social scene at McGill.

However, for those with social anxiety, simply putting oneself out there is not enough. It’s a constant, self-perpetuating cycle that requires tangible effort and help—whether it be from therapy or medication—to even begin to have the courage to break. Most importantly, Arnold asserts, it requires patience from those around them.

“Even though [social anxiety] affects their lives in ways they don’t want, it doesn’t mean that person is any less worthwhile or interesting or pleasant.” Arnold said. “They just need a little understanding, sometimes.”