In 2013, The Toronto Star published the results of a study conducted by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services measuring the mental health of more than 30,000 students at 34 colleges and universities across the country. Eighty-nine per cent of the participants felt “overwhelmed by all they had to do” and 86.9 per cent reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety.” Terrifyingly, nearly 10 per cent of those surveyed had “seriously considered suicide”. Over the past several years, society’s understanding of mental health has dramatically expanded to incorporate a wide range of innovative approaches to treatment and prevention. Much of this work has been developed on university campuses. In an effort to measure this progress, as well as analyze where we as a post-secondary educational community can still do more, The Varsity’s Editorial Board has elected to publish a three-part series on mental health on campus. This is its first installment.
One of U of T’s more attractive and marketable features has been its central location within a major urban setting. Many students appreciate and seek out a metropolitan experience when they first leave home; others were raised in the city and want to stay.
The chief attraction of cities has always been opportunity — whether it be for wealth, culture, fame, or anonymity. Yet, the high population density and constant business of urban living has been linked with increased stress. This, in turn, can negatively affect a person’s mental health and well-being. Indeed, one meta-analysis showed that urban dwellers have a 21 per cent higher risk of developing anxiety disorders, and a 39 per cent higher risk of developing mood disorders.
Toronto, as Canada’s largest city, seems to be a particularly acute site of urban stress. This year, StatsCan published a study titled “How’s Life in the City? Life Satisfaction Across Census Metropolitan Areas and Economic Regions in Canada” with an aim towards quantifying life satisfaction among the citizens of Canada’s various urban centres. Toronto ranked second to last in almost every aspect of the study’s measurements.
As students living and working in Toronto, we are all affected by this urban environment, The culture and pace of the city seep through the porous barriers separating the campus from everything else, manifesting in the seemingly non-stop motion of student life. A heightened awareness of our mental health, then, is both especially imperative and frustratingly elusive.
In addition to the stresses of urban existence, U of T students are also subjected to the considerable reputational weight of the institution that fosters the community itself . U of T is what many people consider to be a ‘hard school’. The university has come to prominence on the backs of its hardworking students. Our particular brand of excellence is constantly mirrored back at us: through the university’s promotional materials, its ancient buildings bearing names like Frye and Galbraith, and often the pages of this newspaper. This complex is one of the major reasons many of us enrolled here in the first place, and something we often take pride in.
While this brand is responsible for many of our community members’ outstanding achievements, it has the dangerous potential to descend into hyper-competitive elitism. As we work to shoulder our own ambitions and the university’s clout the crucial practice of self care too often takes a back seat.
In fact, stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation are sometimes celebrated as badges of honour, an apparent testament to dedicated studying and a full schedule. We are all familiar with the Robarts all-nighter and the characteristic stomach ache of over caffeination. Despite their harm, these behaviours and habits have become normalized in student culture and are perpetuated by an implicitly competitive and ambitious community — they are just part of being here.
The way that conversations about these proclivities on campus are often tainted with a certain braggadocio is extremely harmful and needs to be rolled back. Especially as exams approach, it is vital to foster a community that understands that the success we all crave cannot come without health — both mental and physical.
Many groups on campus have already recognized this problem and are working against it. Whether it is a student union or club spreading awareness throughout the year, making space and time for students to destress, or actively lobbying the institution to improve its’ services, there is a movement forming. These people are the innovators, but their success will be hamstrung unless the greater community changes the way it interacts and perpetuates attitudes among its members.
Not one among us is superhuman; we all need sleep, food, exercise, and support to maintain general well-being and achieve the things we are capable of. It is time for us to come together as a community and root out the poisonous influence we impart on one another when we normalize unhealthy behaviour, and in its place foster a culture of mutual support. Only then will we be more effective in tackling issues of mental health in other arenas.