Reflecting upon the recent celebration of World Mental Health Day on October 10th, 2021, I considered our university’s subpar treatment of mental health problems. Scrolling through social media on this day felt eerily similar to last January, when Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign saturated our feeds, sparking controversy over its performative nature. While Bell claimed their campaign would open up a conversation on mental health by donating five cents to mental health initiatives in Canada for every text sent, they were vastly criticized for failing to address the systemic inequalities that their company perpetuated that foster conditions for mental illness to become prevalent. Ultimately, this campaign was a tactic used to pacify the public — to appease us with flashy infographics and an odd video of Micheal Bublé while they continue to financially support and profit from institutions of violence. For instance, Bell plays a large role in maintaining the poor conditions of Ontario prisons; therefore their investment in the prison industrial complex is consequently an investment in a climate that perpetuates mental illness.
We can view our own university through this critical lens as well. McGill claims to support the mental health of their student population, yet does very little to reduce stressors that exacerbate the conditions for mental illness to take hold. Likewise, McGill fails to acknowledge the systemic inequalities that cause struggles within their minority student population or to simply provide accommodations for their students with mental illness. McGill’s policies towards student mental health have consistently been for show. The university has engaged a tendency of speaking grandly about the consideration they have for the community, while simultaneously aggravating the issue. Not only is this seen in simple academic stress, but also in McGill’s refusal to divest fossil fuels, which directly affects the mental (and physical) health of Indigenous students. In addition, the systems put in place by the university to support students are entirely overworked. For instance, the McGill Student Wellness Hub has practically been fully booked throughout my entire time in university, yet McGill refuses to expand them. McGill has made its priorities clear, and the mental well-being of the student body is not at the top of that list.
McGill’s policies towards student mental health have consistently been for show. The university has engaged a tendency of speaking grandly about the consideration they have for the community, while simultaneously aggravating the issue.
McGill’s involvement in institutions of racial and colonial violence is a concern, and I applaud the student advocacy groups such as Divest McGill who are currently trying to dismantle this. In the case of academic stress, however, we can see the administration’s hypocritical policies displayed on a smaller scale. McGill’s culture of die-hard academic success at the expense of mental health or trauma healing is disturbing.
Upon the passing of a close friend of mine during midterms this semester, I felt overwhelmed trying to maintain my personal health while keeping up with the deadlines that hung over my head. Up until this point, I had never submitted a single assignment late in my two years of university. This isn’t to say I haven’t procrastinated — instead, I have become concerningly skilled at pulling bleary-eyed, emotionally-exhausting, Red Bull-fueled all-nighters to finish my work on time. However, facing this traumatic event in my life, I found myself irrevocably and entirely unable to perform this usual dance. Sitting in a poetry course days after the news and reading Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” made me physically ill. Running into acquaintances during passing periods left me feeling like I wasn’t even a person, rather I was floating through campus as some diaphanous being. I had no ability to attend classes, much less to write a six-page comparative essay or complete a statistical analysis in R. When something so heart-wrenching occurs in your life, I can assert that school becomes not only uninteresting, but essentially impossible.
And so, I was left to negotiate with my professors and the administration amongst a blurry cloud of grief. I quickly uncovered just how deeply ingrained the requirement of a justification of trauma is in university culture. Practically every syllabus we come across during the add/drop period states that any excused absences or extensions can only be granted in cases that are “confirmed by documentation,” whether that be for an illness or a personal emergency. In extreme cases, certain professors have stated that they will only accept the excuse of a death if you provide a death certificate. This demand is a gross intrusion, and I can only imagine how humiliating and painful it is for students to provide this information. During a period of grief or trauma, anonymity and solitude are sacraments. The fact that these sole salvations are ripped away by university administration through syllabi clauses is horrifying.
During a period of grief or trauma, anonymity and solitude are sacraments. The fact that these sole salvations are ripped away by university administration through syllabi clauses is horrifying.
In an attempt to understand the professors’ reasoning, it can be argued that they are simply trying to deter lazy students who don’t want to finish their work on time. They may believe that granting academic extensions without documentation is enabling inequalities in their classroom, as certain students will take advantage of the extra time and receive higher marks. In reality, it is far more complicated than just lazy students cheating the system. I doubt that the majority of our educated student body would lie about trauma or illness. Moreover, if a student is lying about a traumatic event in their life in order to receive more time for an assignment, there is surely another source of stress present causing them to do so.
The immense pressure put on McGill students to perform is certainly expected, as it is a privilege to attend such a rigorous and celebrated university; however, the repercussions are concerning. Students at McGill are treated like adults, with immense (and sometimes overwhelming) amounts of responsibility, until it comes to knowing what is best for their own health. We are forced to explain our personal traumas to strangers in order to take a day off. In my case, I felt extremely uncomfortable expressing what had happened to anyone besides a close group of friends, much less an authority figure that barely knew my name. I spent days battling this, resenting the fact that I would have to exploit my trauma in order to not fail out of university. In the end, I found myself being uncomfortably explicit when speaking to professors. I knew that I would only receive sympathy, and more importantly, understanding if I justified myself. I was forced to sacrifice any and all personal boundaries to receive the accommodations I required.
We’ve become so desensitized to this horrific aspect of North American capitalist culture that we now simply accept our fates within a system that thrives upon our unbridled productivity; leaving our personal health, and life, to falter.
Our university’s hyper-fixation on productivity is frightening, and it extends into all aspects of our lives. This philosophy is highly problematic when it comes to mental health, and it is similarly concerning with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. The requirement for students to be on campus and attend in-person classes without the implementation of real social distancing or a vaccine mandate completely disregards student health and wellness. We’ve become so desensitized to this horrific aspect of North American capitalist culture that we now simply accept our fates within a system that thrives upon our unbridled productivity; leaving our personal health, and life, to falter.
Clearly, these issues go much deeper than our university’s culture, and they can actually be ascribed to modern life at large. But, perhaps, we can slowly start to foster a more supportive environment and consequent significant change within our own spheres. Professors can learn to trust students’ intuition and responsibility for their own lives and wellbeing. The administration can implement more mental health institutions that actually listen to their students rather than silence them, and student advocacy groups can take a seat at the higher-up table to partake in these conversations. Perhaps we can begin to address one another with a newfound, gentler approach. Most importantly, just as we provide patience and understanding to others who are struggling, perhaps we can grant the same leniency and love to ourselves.