Why We’re Not OK
There is no one cause for the rise of mental health issues on Canadian campuses that can be pointed to as the genesis of this crisis.
Studies show that mental health disorders are markedly higher now than in previous generations. But why?
Some explain this by highlighting a more open and understanding dialogue surrounding mental health, resulting in people who were previously suffering in silence being more forthcoming about their struggles. But this doesn’t explain the situation we currently find ourselves in, as many studies have introduced response biases to compensate for precisely this fact.
The causes of the rise in mental health disorders are as varied as the people affected by them. They’re caused by everything from your finances to your Facebook, your stress levels to your sleep schedule, your relationships to your responsibilities and chemical imbalances to ingrained thinking patterns.
When we received a recent mental health survey of 25,000 post-secondary students in Ontario, we felt we had to take a closer look at this crisis. The result is “I am not ok,” an in-depth investigation into the increasingly tenuous state of student mental health on Canadian campuses.
Hard data shows the breadth and depth of student mental health struggles, suggesting there are more than 400,000 post-secondary students across Canada dealing with mental health disorders.
What does 400,000 students struggling with mental health really look like? What sort of tangible impact does that have on our households, our social circles, our classrooms?
We wanted to put a face to those numbers, to profile students struggling as three-dimensional individuals, not defined by their diagnoses. We wanted to play a small role in helping break down the stifling stigma associated with mental health on campus.
The heart of this project is the interviews we conducted with five Niagara College students who struggle with mental health issues. We documented their experiences in video interviews, still photographs and prose. The result was a candid exploration of the day-to-day realities of living with a mental health disorder.
We cannot thank them enough for sharing their stories.
To bolster our research, we also looked at two different studies which have recently been released. We produced podcasts, created a glossary of terms, got statements from politicians and collected first-person stories detailing struggles with mental health.
“I am not ok” is a comprehensive look at a problem which everyone, in one way or another, is affected by.
The increasing digitization of our lives and the advent of social media came with the promise it would bring us all closer together, interconnecting us in ways which were previously unimaginable. Yet, anyone who takes a sober assessment of the situation can see just the opposite has happened.
What we gained in “friends” on social media, we lost in real, tangible friendships. What we gained in ostensible interconnectivity, we lost in face-to-face interaction.
How many times have you been seated with people around a table, the air silent except for the sound of fingers tapping away on phone keys? How many times have you seen someone walking down the street, their nose in their phone, closed off from the world around them?
The bulk of our interactions with one another are mediated through devices which have had pernicious effects on our social lives and mental health.
We gained an artificial community, devoid of substance, at the cost of what little real life community still existed; rather than interconnectivity, we got increased alienation from each other and the world around us.
The rise in mental health disorders is closely linked to increased precarity in all facets of our lives, particularly when it comes to money. Wealth is polarized and concentrated, pushing more and more people into desperate and uncertain economic situations.
Is it any surprise that someone struggling to keep their head above water financially has increased strain on their mental health and little time for self-care?
These issues are having a discernible impact on post-secondary students, many of whom are facing an uncertain economic future and crippling debt. So what happens when these students graduate and enter the workforce?
Unless something is done, the issues currently plaguing post-secondary institutions will soon be plaguing the workplace. If the rise in mental health issues isn’t dealt with this generation, what can we expect with the next?
As journalists, we are not qualified to diagnose this issue, or to put forth a solution that will adequately address the myriad of causes that have stitched together the fragile fabric of student mental health.
But one doesn’t need a solution to be able to point to the nature of the problem.
What is clear to us is this is an issue we should all be concerned about, and, to adequately deal with it, we need to take a hard look at the causes instead of waiting around for the consequences.
The first step towards fixing a problem is recognizing there is one.
This investigation, for us, has painted a clearer picture of the reality of mental health disorders. We hope that this will prove true for the reader as well, making those struggles more understandable, relatable and less stigmatized.
If anything, to paraphrase the scientist and writer Carl Sagan, we hope it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish what sense of community we still have left.
By RYAN THORPE and ALEX YORKE
Originally published by Niagara News on November 28th, 2016.