In an Nov. 21 interview with the McGill Reporter, Ollivier Dyens, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), shut down the possibility of a Fall reading week in the foreseeable future, despite 71.5 per cent of students declaring support for the break in an April 2015 Enrolment Services survey. In the absence of a reading break, he explained that students can mitigate mental health challenges by practicing good “hygiene de vie”—literally, “life hygiene.” According to Dyens, this means eating and sleeping well, staying active, exercising good time-management, and avoiding unhealthy substances like coffee, cigarettes, and unprescribed Ritalin. He failed to mention any support systems available at McGill, nor the magnitude of the mental health crisis on campuses.
While the “hygiene de vie” practices described by Dyens are certainly healthy, equating these habits with comprehensive mental health treatment strategies misunderstands the mental health challenges that university students—and particularly McGill students—face. Mental illnesses are complex, and often uncontrollable without professional treatment; presenting a laundry list of self-care tips as solutions to mental health issues trivializes the struggles of the brave people who endure them. More concerning, however, is the apparent disconnect between McGill students and the administration on mental health that Dyens’ comments illustrate. Reducing the mental health epidemic on campus to issues such as poor time management or too much coffee only perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, and what they really consist of.
A mental health crisis is erupting on Canadian campuses. In a 2016 survey by the National College Health Assessment of 44,000 Canadian undergraduate students, 64.5 per cent of respondents had experienced severe anxiety, and 44.4 per cent indicated feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function. Now, more than ever, university administrations need to understand the unique pressures on students and provide adequate support for those struggling with mental health issues. So far, McGill has not made the grade. With the cuts to the university’s eating disorder program earlier this semester, long waitlists for counselling appointments, and the persistent lack of accessible, effective mental health services at McGill, students face an unwelcoming environment and an administration they feel isn’t listening to their needs.
Dyens was correct in acknowledging that students are responsible for their own mental health, but he was wrong in presenting this as a choice. Moreover, he was wrong to present simply maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle as an obvious, catch-all fix. Students suffering from mental illness are forced to cope with these challenges every single day, which makes it difficult for them to function properly or lead healthy lives. For students with eating or sleeping disorders, having a meal or getting enough rest are challenges in and of themselves.
It is key to recognize the role that McGill’s campus environment plays in sparking and exacerbating mental health issues. From the demanding academic environment, to the fast-paced social scene, to the pressure to be involved in extracurricular activities—not to mention the unwelcoming job market awaiting graduates—stress is inherent to student and McGill culture. There is a perception at McGill that in order to fit in, students must work themselves thin. The ‘work hard play hard’ dynamic prevails, leaving students to feel that there’s little room for self-care.
To lessen these stresses, dismantle this toxic culture, and help students fulfill their academic potential, the McGill administration must demonstrate an accurate and comprehensive understanding of mental health. This requires communicating in supportive and productive ways that show students the university cares and is receptive to student feedback. Furthermore, condescending students by telling them to practice “hygiene de vie” as a solution to anxiety only places further pressure on a demographic that already places extreme pressure on itself to succeed at university. The McGill administration should instead focus on providing the education and support necessary for students to be healthy and happy.
Every time a crucial service is scaled down, or a member of the administration expresses careless or insensitive views regarding mental health, students suffer as a result. Per its own description, the Student Life and Learning Office exists to “support students inside and outside of the classroom.” To that end, it is insufficient to divert attention to the logistics of implementing a Fall reading week, or offer self-care tips, in lieu of providing adequate—and desperately needed—resources: In the last three years, the number of students seeking mental-health or counselling services on campus has increased by 57 per cent. When it comes to responding to student mental health concerns, members of the McGill administration must demonstrate a better understanding.