For most people, self care occurs on an unconscious level everyday. At its simplest, self care is the process whereby one gives their body and mind what they need. For the last three years, however, Healthy McGill has made a point of asking students to bring this process to a conscious level, making the effort to think about what they need, and making a point to answer these demands.
Healthy McGill’s annual “Self Care Challenge” took place this year from Feb. 8 to 19, and was designed to bring questions of self care to light in the midst of the stressful midterm season. There were five challenges every day, each of which covered a pillar of Healthy McGill: Active living, mental health, eating well, sexual health, and safe partying. The activities ranged from “go fill up your water bottle” or “compliment a friend” to “make an appointment to get tested for STIs.” Though these tasks may appear mundane to some, and are probably already a part of most students’ routines, self care constitutes undertaking these activities consciously as something that contributes to one’s overall health.
Dorothy Apedaile, a sexual and peer health educator at Healthy McGill, explained how self care is essentially about taking a moment to contribute to one’s personal health and wellbeing.
“The Self Care Challenge was about taking time for yourself,” Apedaile said. “It’s about folks developing behaviours that can help them down the road [….] The idea of the ‘challenge’ format [was] to start a community where folks can share their experiences. People who have completed the challenge in previous years say they enjoy seeing other students participating online, and that sharing their experiences is a form of self care in and of itself.”
Self care is particularly important for young students in stressful academic settings. Most mental illnesses, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and psychosis, crop up between the ages of 18 and 25. According to Anya McMurrer, a mental health coordinator for Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), nearly one third of McGill students experience less-than-average mental health over the course of their degree. Although self care is by no means a form of treatment, it is an important preventative measure in a competitive university environment where students are faced with a myriad of pressures, academic and otherwise.
The Self Care Challenge used the internet to begin discussions about self care and personal health. It asked students to demonstrate their self care over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and by the end of the week, the event page was filled with photo collages of students sharing their experiences throughout the 12-day period.
Harnessing social media as a tool has proved effective for the Self Care Challenge in creating a community. Katie Wheatley, U3 Arts, chose to participate in the challenge for a second year simply because she enjoys seeing other students’ experiences.
“It reminded us, as busy students, to check in and make a conscientious effort to take care of ourselves,” Wheatley said. “I also chose to partake because I knew I would appreciate the reminders to spend time on myself, and encouragement to dive into what feel like little indulgences, at a point in the semester when things are ramping up in terms of stress and expectations.”
Wheatley also noted that she thought sharing her experience online encouraged her friends to participate in the challenge, or at least start thinking about self care.
Although social media is a powerful tool for starting discussions and building community, it is worth considering what was noticeably absent from the self care challenge: Male students. The participants posting in the event were overwhelmingly female, and undertaking what are conceived as typically gendered activities.
According Apedaile, the unfortunate consequence of using a social media platform is that gender comes into a lot of who uses social media. She stressed that although Healthy McGill tried to make the Self Care Challenge as accessible as possible, there were certain things that lie beyond their control.
“There are definitely gender expectations around who shares what on social media, ” Apedaile explained. “One of our solutions (to the lack of male participation) is getting people to email us and moving away from traditionally gendered types of self care like ‘painting your fingernails.’”
Although the experience of many participants of the Self Care Challenge was positive, it is essential to examine these initiatives critically and weigh the pros and cons.
For McMurrer, the Self Care Challenge, while contributing to the health of a great number of students, has a lot to improve on.
“Posting pictures of yourself doing any of the given activities can both empower you and normalize self care, but for the person scrolling through their news feed who hasn’t left bed in three days due to a bout of depression, it might actually be more upsetting,” McMurrer said.
To combat the issues with social media, McMurrer suggested Healthy McGill to shift the focus of the Self Care Challenge from an online forum for sharing, into a proactive form of community support.
“I think future Self Care Challenges can shift a little bit more towards thinking about ‘community care’—engaging with friends and loved ones and giving them support in any way they might need it,” McMurrer said. “Healthy McGill could cater to a wider audience by reframing the event as a Self-Care Week with different workshops that give you the opportunity to learn how you take care of yourself best.”
Wheatley, who participated in the challenge, noted that within the scope of their abilities, the Self Care Challenge had the potential to have a positive impact.
“I really see taking care of ourselves and actively adopting strategies to de-stress on a regular basis as key preventative measures in ensuring we maintain healthy outlooks on life,” Wheatley said. “Especially given the stress of school and the hundred other things we all have on our plates.”
Ultimately, the Self Care Challenge raised issues over the scarce health services at McGill—a shift that places responsibility for care on the student rather than the institution. McMurrer noted that there is a recent trend at the university where student groups pick up the slack when the university falls short, such as a lack of appointment availability to see psychologists, and long wait times that have let students down. She argued that in this sense the Self Care Challenge is essential to students, but part of a larger problem that needs to be addressed.
“There’s a much deeper issue here,” McMurrer said. “Ultimately, there is a lot of onus on McGill students to take care of themselves as individuals because the university is not taking proper care of [them].”
There remains a lot of work to be done at McGill in providing adequate mental health services, but for most students the Self Care Challenge appeared to be a step in the right direction in the meantime.