On Jan. 28 2021, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council adopted the Academic Wellness Plan. The plan aims to provide a preventive and holistic alternative to previous approaches that focussed exclusively on crisis intervention and service provision. Given that the SSMU Mental Health Policy and Plan acknowledges that the rigorous academic environment at McGill fosters an “overall increased potential of a mental health crisis” in students, SSMU Mental Health Commissioners were inspired to act on the policy and to spearhead the Academic Wellness Plan. The plan includes a faculty training initiative, mental health literacy programs, a MyCourses add-on, and more.
SSMU Mental Health Commissioner Julia Caddy, U3 Arts, who has been working on the proposal since its inception last year, explained that the Academic Wellness Proposal intends to facilitate preventative mental wellness within the specific cultural and academic context of the McGill community.
“The plan is an effort to address mental health at McGill at a systemic and upstream level,” Caddy said. “So instead of looking at the services we provide when students are in crisis or generally facing distress, we’re looking at the environments that we’re setting up, the culture that we’re creating and the community that we’re fostering. And since we’re an academic institution, a lot of this is around the classroom, the academic environment.”
In an interview with The McGill Tribune, SSMU mental health advocacy coordinator Julian Guidote, L1 law, explained that stable mental health and academic excellence are not only individually significant, but complementary. Guidote hopes SSMU’s plan will bolster both.
“One thing that we don’t want to say is that the two ideas, academic rigor and mental health, are diametrically opposed,” Guidote said. “They go hand in hand, and an improvement of one does not mean the detriment to the other.”
Kerry Yang, U3 Science and a Science Undergraduate Society (SUS) Senator noted that the Academic Wellness Plan is intended to benefit not only students, but the McGill community as a whole, including faculty and staff.
“We understand that professors are also very stressed and have a lot of work on their plate,” Yang said. “So, a lot of our focus is through incentive-based approaches rather than a top-down enforcement mechanism because we understand we need to care about instructors’ mental health as well, because if their mental health is not good, then they can’t create healthy environments in the classroom.”
Olivia Bornyi, U2 Arts and SSMU mental health outreach coordinator, outlined some of the concrete ways that the plan is currently being implemented at McGill, touching on cultural shifts in the classroom and the roles of instructors.
“There is a MyCourses pop-up that now says, ‘take care of your mental health’ [with links to resources]. That’s something that the strategic plan has been able to successfully implement here,” Bornyi said in an interview with the Tribune. “We also ensure that there’s faculty training so that teachers are aware of how to recognize if someone is having a crisis. [Faculty] are also provided with documents […], in order to help out students and to foster a more inclusive and welcoming environment within their classrooms.”
Moving forward, Caddy and other students involved with the strategic wellness plan encourage the McGill community to begin critically examining the academic culture.
“We can look at how the classroom environment can be better, how different processes can be better,” Caddy said. “Rather than assuming that the status quo is the status quo […], we can really challenge that and do so in an educated way, whether that’s looking into what other students are doing or looking into it yourself and having conversations about it.”