Commentary, Opinion

Sensitive course content requires careful instruction

CW: suicide, self-harm

Lecture recordings obtained by The McGill Tribune from a Winter 2022 PSYC 302 (Psychology of Pain) class by professor Jeffrey Mogil reveal him joking about suicide and self-harm, and describing to students the most effective way to shoot themselves. Mogil is a professor in the psychology department who regularly teaches PSYC 302. He has received many awards and research grants, including the Distinguished Career Award of the Canadian Pain Society, and is popular among students, as per his ratings on RateMyProf. And yet, despite his accolades and his research in behavioural neuroscience and pain, Mogil deemed it appropriate to make graphic jokes about suicide in a room full of students. 

Although many professors establish more casual and joking relationships with students as part of their teaching methods, some topics should be off-limits. Jokes about suicide are dangerous. With mental health issues on the rise among young people, telling students the most effective ways to end their lives is completely inappropriate. No matter how friendly the rapport is in the classroom, professors have a responsibility to convey their material appropriately. Fostering a good relationship with students should mean promoting mental health resources and help, not self-harm. 

The comments by Mogil are particularly disturbing considering the barriers students encounter when accessing mental health resources at McGill. Considering its rigorous academic environment that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, it is unsurprising that the number of students struggling with their mental health is on the rise. From just a brief scroll through r/mcgill, readers will find countless student posts detailing experiences of burnout, depression, and anxiety that reveal the extent to which mental illness is an issue at McGill. However, the resources available to students consistantly fail to meet demand. In order to meet with a psychiatrist, students have to go through a nurse, and then a general practitioner who issues a referral. After that, waiting times to actually meet with a psychiatrist can be as long as 8-10 weeks unless the case is deemed “urgent.” And although psychiatrists are not the only professionals available to students, school counselors fall short of providing the care students need when their mental health cannot be addressed with meditation or better sleep hygiene. On the other hand, students are left to endure a professor’s graphic jokes about suicide. 

Instructors, especially those in the psychology department, should be aware of the difficulties students face in receiving appropriate mental health care. Jokes about suicide are not only irresponsible and dangerous, but a complete abuse of the position of authority that professors are granted. Those teaching these subjects should know that their classes and content can be triggering to a diverse student body. All students, especially those who are struggling with their mental health, deserve to feel safe in the classroom. Instructors should foster a learning environment that gives students options to take care of themselves. Seemingly small actions such as including trigger and content warnings, allowing students to step out of class when needed, or providing access to alternative materials can make a huge difference. Professors should model respect for their students, not contempt for their health. 

Mogil’s comments speak to the larger issue of professors and universities not providing safe learning environments for vulnerable and marginalized students when their classes delve into topics like self-harm, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexual violence. The responsibility of protecting the mental well-being of students rests just as much on the shoulders of the McGill administration as it does on professors. This issue is a matter of accessibility. All students have the right to a safe classroom, regardless of the course and the professor’s teaching methods. 

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