We are in the throes of the fall term. The leaves on the ground are an array of crimson and amber. Halloween enthusiasm has come and gone. Students hasten their steps to campus and don their heavier jackets. The sky begins to grey as the gloom of winter prepares to lay its claim on the city, and rolling in with the clouds is a sentiment familiar to most McGill students.
First, it spreads throughout the library. Dozens hunch over piles of notes with heads on tables but pens still furiously at work, as though they wish to rest but know they have no time to waste. Bloodshot eyes adorned with dark circles are illuminated by laptop screens and fifty-page readings. Comments born from this deflated environment echo throughout the building, soon to leak out into the rest of campus.
“I’m going to lose my mind this midterm season.”
“This exam is giving me a panic attack.”
“What am I doing here? What’s the point?”
“All this work makes me want to kill myself.”
It’s a difficult time of year for all. This sentiment proliferates through entire schools quickly and effectively. Mental wellness is shoved behind the curtain as academic success takes centre stage, and the mood of the student body cools to the cruel cold of the upcoming winter months. Friends and strangers alike seem to be hanging lower than usual, and they blame their melancholy on stress, lack of sleep, and exam-related anxiety.
It’s unsettling to feel such a way, but it’s simply our natural way of being during this time of year. We as students are familiar with this cycle. This is university… right?
Secondary education, especially of McGill’s prestigious caliber, implies a heavy workload. We devote countless hours to our studies, putting pen to paper and fingers to keyboards in efforts to advance ourselves the farthest possible, and to prove to ourselves that we can do it.
There is doubt, however, about the necessity of sacrificing our mental well-being in order to take on these academic challenges.
And it’s hard. University is hard. McGill is hard. Any student could tell you that, no doubt about it. There is doubt, however, about the necessity of sacrificing our mental well-being in order to take on these academic challenges.
In 2018, one in four university students reported being treated for a mental health condition during their time in school. In the same study, one in nine reported suicidal ideation. Twenty percent had experienced self-harm. Nine percent had attempted suicide, and in the United States, 1,100 of these students succumb to their struggles every year.
So is this just university? Is the annual ‘cycle’ students are subjected to—the annual spike in anxiety, depression, and sometimes even the loss of student lives—a mere part of the college-living package?
If you’ve struggled with a mental health disorder in the past or present, you’re likely aware how inappropriate it is to illustrate coping with these feelings as the standard. Spending whole days in bed, with tasks as uninvolved as brushing your teeth morphing into impossible endeavors, qualify for the least ordinary experience out there.
Universities love to broadcast the idea of “You are not alone” in an effort to connect with struggling students. At first, this mantra is comforting. The notion of not being alone in agony confirms our emotions to be normal because others endure similar pain. Furthermore, encouraging conversation about the feelings so deeply ingrained in our psychology is often the best form of relief, despite it sometimes feeling daunting.
If all these people are supposedly feeling what you are feeling—suffering the way you are suffering—but are still succeeding academically and appear to stay composed, how then can your experience be the norm?
But as time and academics carry on, hearing this affirmation doesn’t quite hold the same effect as it did in the beginning of term. It seems, despite the deflated atmosphere, many students remain afloat. And as the message of ‘You are not alone!’ proliferates throughout campus, and the epidemic of mental illness continues to be ‘normalized,’ someone who finds themselves still sinking feels quite the opposite of normal. If all these people are supposedly feeling what you are feeling—suffering the way you are suffering—but are still succeeding academically and appear to stay composed, how then can your experience be the norm?
Recently, I was walking back to my dorm with a friend. As we ambled down Sherbrooke, I pitched my idea for this article to her. She nodded, and she understood where I was going with my explanation. When I finished, she concluded my thoughts by suggesting that while normalization is the goal, the efforts towards achieving it often manifest a sense of minimization instead. Thus, a title—and a take—was born.
My friend had a point. Understand that these words are in no way an attempt to mitigate any person’s experience. All pain, mental or physical, is relative and therefore valid. The issue is not that universities are failing to support their students; rather, we are dealing with an epidemic of minimization disguised as normalization. Instead of labeling symptoms as normal and therefore valid, campus culture is labeling our mental health issues as normal and therefore expected.
On one hand, our schools insist that we are not alone in our emotions; on the other, we claim this struggle to be a natural consequence of college life.
But we didn’t come to McGill to suffer; we came to open the doors to our futures. And yet, students continue to struggle in silence. On one hand, our schools insist that we are not alone in our emotions; on the other, we claim this struggle to be a natural consequence of the college life. In the end, we are met with a confusing cocktail of both comfort and mitigation.
An additional consequence of this dangerous concoction is the peculiarly competitive attitude that develops among the student body. As academic tensions intensify, many of us are guilty of taking greedy swigs of the cocktail. We find ourselves firing back and forth our struggles in conversation, one-upping one another in a battle of poor sleep and unhealthy habits— “You got four hours of sleep last night? Well, I only had two, and I still got an A.” Why exactly do we as students gain such pride from expressing our academic success in terms of neglecting our needs? In fact, this phenomenon only works to further damage our mental health; the idea of the student experience being an unhealthy one seems tragically inevitable.
Although this normalization is a good practice, it is crucial for administrations to avoid taking too heavy swigs from the minimization cocktail.
In theory, we must normalize disorders to foster a collective confidence in seeking help and speaking openly. As the decline in mental health has grown dire, universities are taking steps towards increasing availability of services and providing support to their students. Although this normalization is a good practice, it is crucial for administrations to avoid taking too heavy swigs from the minimization cocktail; this includes over-assuring normalcy in individual experiences (what you’re going through is alright!) and making bold promises to help all students part of such a diverse population of backgrounds and issues. Students need to know they aren’t alone in terms of being supported, not in being relatable to thousands of other students also made victims of minimization.
Suffering, whether it roots from exam stress, neverending deadlines, or mental illness, is not a lone battle. The pain that overwhelms us is both normal and common, yes, but we ought to try and withhold the belief that because it’s normal, that therefore means it’s unsolvable. With the right support system, all will be okay. Sure, sometimes seeking out that kind of help can feel harder than all the exams in the world, but realizing the validity of these problems will easen the process of opening up.
We are at university, so naturally we are stressed. But for many of us, we have reached the point beyond the normal amount of academic stress. Our collective mental health is on a steady decline and it has universities and administrations up in arms. We’ve been presented with a plethora of services: evidence of McGill’s efforts towards reversing this trend. Yet, these services offer little relief, and thus the toxic culture of expected suffering remains. Perhaps this new availability of mental health treatments is the antidote we’ve been anticipating. More likely, however, the cure for this struggle is rather the realization that university should and need not beget universal pain.