In her Sept. 19 column for the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente compared today’s university students to “fragile flowers,” arguing that increasing concern for mental health on campuses is conditioning young adults to be weak, not resilient. Wente needs to learn a thing or two about resilience.
Wente’s staunch disapproval of mental health services on Canadian campuses comes at a time when students are under more pressure than ever before—according to a 2016 National College Health Assessment survey, a fifth of Canadian students struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges. Distressed students are looking to their institutions to provide adequate support for mental health, and in some capacity or another, it finally seems as if universities are listening. Mental health is on the radar, and—despite Wente’s spiel about the dangers of coddling—that’s a good thing. As such, McGill students and faculty need to work together to normalize conversations about mental health, in order to continue to dismantle toxic stigmas and create a safe and fair academic space for all.
Mental health issues are ubiquitous on university campuses. In a Spring 2016 American College Health Association survey of almost 44,000 Canadian undergraduate students, 89.5 per cent of respondents reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do at some point within the 12 months prior to the survey, 64.5 per cent had experienced overwhelming anxiety, and 44.4 per cent admitted to feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function. These numbers only begin to tell the story of the pressures facing university students today.
The truth is, students have a whole lot to be anxious about. University life demands a careful—and unattainable—balance between good grades, meaningful co-curricular involvement, and a booming social life. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for self-care. While university itself is replete with pressures that trigger and test students’ well-being, undergrads are additionally burdened by the uncertainty of, what comes next? A bachelor’s degree is no longer a set path to stable employment. Young adults are increasingly finding themselves ripe out of university with a degree that holds less and less value, and no job to show for it. Pile on the average $25,000 of student debt and it’s no wonder students are feeling overwhelmed.
The first time I contemplated my own mental health was during my second year at McGill. While I had undoubtedly experienced feelings of anxiety before beginning university, it was the first time I had reflected upon those feelings, and identified them as such. I suddenly felt the pressures of university life weighing down on me in a way that they hadn’t before. My mood was consistently low, and my self-confidence suffered as a result. I could not control the negative thoughts that were going through my brain, and that made me feel helpless.
At the time, I felt fragile. But looking back, I am grateful for this experience, because it took feeling incredibly overwhelmed to realize what my mental health means to me, and to come to terms with the way I experience anxiety. Accepting myself as a somewhat anxious person, and finding the strength to be able to talk about it with my peers, has made it infinitely easier for me to cope with pressure.
Listen closely, Margaret: Speaking openly about our personal mental health struggles and asking for help when we need it doesn’t make us fragile. It makes us incredibly strong.
The image of a field of delicate daffodils swaying in the wind may be pretty, but it’s no metaphor for today’s students. Rather, I see a dense forest of trees, securely rooted in the ground, battling wind, rain, snow, hail—or hurricanes, for that matter—all the while fighting to grow taller and extend their branches further.
As Wente explains, access to therapy dogs or extra time on exams will not guarantee students with mental illnesses a life devoid of hardship. She’s right. Speaking openly about mental health—and recognizing that a disability doesn’t have to be physical to be valid—will not make mental illness go away. Still, by promoting a culture of support and acceptance, universities tell students that mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. And by speaking openly about our own struggles, we can find strength in knowing that we’re not alone, and hopefully make it a bit easier for those who come after us. Sounds pretty resilient to me.