October 27, 2014

Commentary | March 18, 2013
Put your money where your mind is
Three solutions to mental health problems at McGill
Written by

We have some problems here at McGill with mental health and wellness. Stress, depression, and anxiety are rampant in our community, and they are inadequately addressed. Mental Health Services is unable to meet the needs of students due to high demand, and for most international and out-of-province students these campus services are the only place for healthcare.

Students should work together to expand access to mental health services and reduce wellness burdens like stress and anxiety.

Queen’s University recently published a comprehensive report on mental health best practices for its community, and some of the information contained within is disturbing. At Queen’s, 16 per cent of students reported a lifetime diagnosis of depression, 14 per cent reported a diagnosis of anxiety, and 5 per cent reported a diagnosis of an eating disorder. 4 per cent had considered suicide in the previous semester, and a further 10 per cent had at some point before that.

Stress was another large feature in students’ lives, with only 30 per cent of students reporting average stress levels, 40 per cent reporting above average levels and 20 per cent reporting tremendous levels of stress. The reported consequences of this stress include mental health problems, decreased academic performance, ill health, and missed school or work.

Only two in three students reported that they were involved in meaningful and enjoyable activities, and a quarter of students did not think they fit in at Queen’s.

Too much stress and anxiety? Mental health burdens too high? Too many people feeling isolated? That certainly sounds like McGill.

There is clearly something wrong here, but there is also an opportunity to reevaluate how our community works. We should prioritize health and wholeness to turn McGill into a supportive place for all students, faculty and staff.

The Queen’s report recommends a pyramidal approach – like the old American food pyramid – to promote mental health on campus. Promoting a healthy community is at the bottom, the large foundation where lean protein and whole grains used to be. Above lies transitions and resilience, and then encouraging help-seeking. Effective services occupy the smallest section of the pyramid. Here at McGill, we need to work on all of those areas.

Tuition and fees are capped by law, but universities can charge more if students approve the additional fees via referendum. That is how Student Services (which includes Mental Health Services) is funded. McGill then skims a small percentage off the top of the money to pay for lawyers’ fees and building maintenance. The university is threatening to increase the amount they take, even while they ask us to approve additional fee increases. McGill students already pay among the most in the province.

In the context of a campus with poor mental health, Mental Health Services undeniably needs more funding, so the fee increases should go to our services, not to the James building.

Here are three concrete solutions. First, we should offer more direct funding to Mental Health Services at McGill, but let’s be smart about it. We should pass a referendum offering additional money for Student Services if, and only if, McGill promises not to raise their overhead percentage fee for the services, as they are threatening to do. This would allow the service to see more students, for more sessions, for longer, and would make sure that 98.5 per cent of our additional funding goes straight to helping students. That’s a big deal.

In addition to funding direct treatment, SSMU should also create a $0.13 Mental Health Fund to support campus initiatives that promote mental health. It would raise about $6,000 annually, which could support student research or conferences, puppy petting in the library at exam times, specialized help for disadvantaged groups, programs to integrate students into campus life, or campaigns to end mental health stigma.

Finally, SSMU should design a comprehensive Mental Health Plan, with benchmarks and goals, concrete responsibilities, and a progressive vision of wellness on campus. Building on the pyramidal approach of Queen’s, we can build this plan by incorporating the expert knowledge found at our school and the lived experiences of our members.

Mental health and wellness should be a top priority, because school is hard enough without everything else on top of it. We can do better, and we should take this opportunity to centre our communities around wellness. Let’s look out for each other.

Chris Bangs is a U3 Economics and Political Science student. He can be reached at bangs.christopher@gmail.com.

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