Opinion: Universities need to rethink their role in students’ well-being

I did not show any signs of depression until my second semester at university. I started to miss classes, assignments and eventually an exam. I spent days crying silently in bed, fearful that my roommates would hear. When I eventually dragged myself to see an academic adviser to explain that I needed to drop a course before I failed it, she sent me to see a counsellor.

The counsellor’s advice? Suck it up. You are not adjusting to living on the other side of the country from your family. So I did. Until two years later, when my second major depressive episode hit harder than before, leaving me incapable of functioning.

This time, the university’s services impressed me. I saw a psychiatrist fairly quickly and he took my story seriously. He contacted the Office for Students with Disabilities, which then contacted my professors, telling them I needed to withdraw from their course and that the office fully supported this decision. They helped me avoid the bureaucratic goose chase the university usually sends students on to resolve issues.

The psychiatrist put me on medication and saw me once a week for 10 sessions. Slowly, I got better. Eventually, I was able to function again. I was lucky to have seen a trained professional so quickly, and to have had the understanding and support of my professors and family. 

Unfortunately, this is not the case for too many university students across the country. A 2013 study found that 37.5 per cent of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function in the 12 months prior to the study; 9.5 per cent had seriously considered suicide and 1.3 per cent had attempted suicide during that time period. The suicide of Edmonton’s 21-year old Evan Tran, a “quirky” and “bubbly kid,” is just recent proof of this tragic trend. 

A wealth of reports and articles blame increased academic pressure and long wait times for the rise of mental illness on Canadian campuses. There are just not enough trained professionals to reach everyone and students are now juggling more things than ever in daily life.

No doubt universities are trying to address the problem by hiring more staff, offering workshops, increasing mental health promotion across campuses and so on. But I cannot help but wonder why we are not also talking about the structural problems with university itself.

Universities need to rethink how they deliver education and what role they should play in their students’ well-being. I would not argue that universities are entirely responsible for their students’ mental health, but if students are coughing up so much for tuition, shouldn’t the university try harder to support them? Further, if universities want students to excel, shouldn’t they make it a priority to ensure students are able to really flourish?

We need to rethink course loads, class sizes, pedagogy and other facets of the university’s structural foundation, because clearly this problem is only increasing. We cannot afford to continue publishing the same stories, reiterating the same problems without offering a real, sustainable solution.

I eventually finished my undergraduate degree with first class honours, thanks to support from professors, the administration and my family. I would like to see more students overcome mental illness and do the same.

Emily Lennon grew up in Edmonton, attended Victoria School, and holds a degree in anthropology from McGill University. 

Article retrieved from: The Edmonton Journal 

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