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 third installment.
Upon being asked for his best life advice, Daniel Handler — also known as Lemony Snicket, author of the popular children’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events — replied: “One hears it a lot on airplanes: Make sure you have your own mask on, before helping others with theirs.” This suggestion is certainly useful for many students, particularly during exam time, but also more broadly in the context of increasing mental health issues on campus.
With only 24 hours in a day, fitting in the boundless opportunities available to us on campus and beyond presents us with an inevitable zero-sum game; we can only do so much with our time. It is necessary, then, to prioritize our activities to ensure our efforts are best spent on what is most important to us.
Unfortunately, in an environment that glorifies good grades and stacked LinkedIn profiles, we slip into the thinking that we should give up sleep, a homemade meal, or some exercise for that extra five per cent on a test. This “grades-over-everything” mentality has the potential to manifest in a dangerous cycle of all-nighters, caffeine highs, and irregular meal times.
But we are more than our GPAs, or the number of lines on our résumés, and we certainly don’t need to sacrifice our health. It is perfectly fine to take a break, slow down, and put your health first. In fact, these things are necessary for us to achieve everything else we want in life. Our mental well-being is just as important as our physical health.
This idea of self-care seems rather obvious in writing, but perhaps it is its banality that allows it to go forgotten so often. In the midst of rising reports — both academic and anecdotal — of the increased presence of mental health issues on campus, it bears repeating that there is absolutely nothing weak about acknowledging that coping with school can be incredibly hard, and that your mental health is suffering as a result. In reality, this recognition is the strongest thing you can do — it allows you to create strategies and seek help in order to cope, recover, and ultimately flourish.
U of T’s giant, decentralized bureaucracy is daunting, but there are a number of helpful resources to support students’ self-care. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness based cognitive therapy workshops are offered at the Health & Wellness Center, Multi-Faith Centre, and Hart House, while there are a variety of free drop-in activities available at the Athletic Centre and Goldring. While they are certainly not meant to substitute medication or professional help, actively cultivating healthy habits goes a long way towards de-stigmatizing mental health and creating an environment we can all thrive in.
This is not to deny the subsequent difficulties that are inherent to living with mental health diagnoses. Certainly for some, it can feel impossible to keep functioning when parents are far away, deadlines are constant, pressure is rising, and the campus health services have waitlists leading on into next semester.
It is important, however, to remember that you deserve the help you need and want, and that you are surrounded by peers and professionals who are familiar with and just as susceptible to these issues as you are. The track record may not be pretty, and systematic change may be slow — but there is hope that support can and will be found when we most need it. Indeed, with the recent integration of Counselling and Psychological Services with Health & Wellness, we can be cautiously optimistic that U of T is genuinely attempting to respond appropriately to our multi-faceted and complex mental health needs.
Once we have our own masks own, we also each have a role to play in this change. As the saying goes, individually we are one drop, but what is an ocean but a multitude of drops? While the institution and broader community are breaking down structural barriers to mental well-being, we each have a responsibility to disrupt the norm of a sleepless, exhausted student, while offering encouragement and reminders to our fellow peers to stay mindful our of mental health. Only with this interrelated action can the entire system progress towards a kinder, more understanding setting.