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A culture of memes and private suffering: Mental health in Canadian universities

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The media periodically proclaims that the mental health of university students is in bad shape. Maclean's declared in a 2012 article that the mental health of postsecondary students has reached "crisis mode." Although it is widely known that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in Canadians aged 10 to 24, there seems to be a culture of acceptance surrounding mental illness in universities. It is a tough problem with no clear solution, but one thing is clear: this phenomenon of widespread mental distress in academia cannot continue.

Recently, concerns were raised once again over the pressures put on university students following the suicide of Émilie Marchand, a Montreal medical student. In a letter published in La Presse, a co-worker and friend of Marchand's wrote that the demands of her residency had led her to become anxious and depressed. He blamed a "macho and competitive system that, over the years, continues to maintain non-written rules such as that psychological distress is a sign of weakness."

In my own experience as an undergrad at McGill, mental distress was so widespread that it was essentially normalized. Staying up all night at the library, taking unprescribed study drugs and producing many tears over looming deadlines -- these were average occurrences, and students who did not partake in these destructive study habits were looked down on for their perceived lack of dedication.

It's a strange Catch-22. On the one hand, mental health issues are so pervasive that they feel status quo. They are in turn stigmatized in the sense that academia becomes "a competition of who's doing great," says Maxime Pouliot, a first-year law student at McGill. There can also be a divide between a student's online persona and in-person coping mechanisms. Pouliot notes, "There is this weird phenomenon of gathering in pain using humour, like: 'Hey, I'm so behind, let's post a meme about how law school destroys me!' These not-so-empty messages are not taken seriously and instead of questioning them and challenging them, we 'banalise' them in Facebook groups."

If students are too shy or ashamed to share their feelings of anxiety in a context that is not lighthearted, then they may suffer in silence amongst their peer group. It doesn't seem, however, that this culture of stigmatization carries over to students seeking help individually from university counselors. "The number of students making use of mental health services is double, threefold in recent years," says Executive Director of Student Services at McGill, Jana Luker. "The stigma of seeing a therapist has lessened."

Indeed, Maclean’s reported that Ryerson University experienced a 200 percent increase in demand from "students in crisis situations" in 2011. But students will often experience long wait times that exacerbate existing mental health issues. At McGill, students can wait up to two weeks to see a therapist, and only 36.5 full time equivalent mental health practitioners serving a student body of 36 000. At Ryerson, Maclean’s reported that, as of 2012, this number was 16 for a student body of 28 000.

But it may be unfair to blame mental health services in postsecondary institutions. Most universities will help students more quickly in crisis situations, and long wait times are only one piece of a complex puzzle. Dwindling job prospects and the diminishing value of a university degree are almost certainly factors. More and more students are as well entering university with pre-existing mental health issues. "We can see people more frequently coming in with complex issues that translate to more stressors," says Luker.

So what should be done? One solution may be the simplest: reduce the pressures put on university students. The Saint Louis Medical School was able to reduce anxiety rates amongst med school students by implementing a pass-fail grading system and increasing the number of electives in the curriculum. A full course load in Canada and the U.S. is five courses, but universities outside North America frequently have lighter course loads -- in the U.K., for example, students take three classes per semester.

Finally, this dichotomous culture of private suffering and public faux-heroism must be addressed. The creation of student-supported clubs, such as COPE at McMaster University, may help erase the stigma that surrounds discussion of mental illness between students. Above all, though, we need to stop reducing mental distress to meme form, and start talking about our anxiety in a more nuanced manner. Being vulnerable is difficult, but it is the only way to break down the isolating walls of a computer screen and find some real support.

Jessica Prupas is a freelance writer and editor living in Montreal, and the rabble.ca Blogs intern. She recently received her B.A. from McGill University and is navigating those choppy post-collegiate waters.

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