Commentary | Staying well amidst McGill’s high pressure

According to Statistics Canada, nearly 20 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 suffer from some kind of mental health disorder. Not only are these rates the highest of any age bracket, but this is also the time when many chronic mental illnesses first develop. Taking a look around McGill affirms the statistic: during finals, the libraries are brimming with students on the edge of breakdowns; the dark, cold winter months trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder; and many students suffer from depression, eating disorders, as well as other serious mental health issues that aren’t outwardly apparent.

In a February Montreal Gazette article on increasing mental health issues among students, former McGill Mental Health head psychiatrist Norman Hoffman described McGill students as “angry, anxious, and fragile.” The extremely competitive environment at McGill – and the high-pressure, high-stress culture it fosters – both perpetuate and normalize symptoms of mental health problems. Bouts of anxiety and general unhappiness or emotional turmoil are typical aspects of student life, leaving many students unaware that they are unwell, or ashamed to seek the help they need.

At McGill, students are under an extraordinary amount of pressure to be successful in our academic and personal lives, and the school’s individualistic culture encourages us to face this on our own. Many of us set impossibly high standards for achievement for ourselves, and often put our wellbeing on the backburner in order to uphold them. But while some students may be able to cope with this stressful and unhealthy lifestyle, the fact that it is a norm at our school is troubling. These habits make us more susceptible to developing mental health issues. In addition, the high-achieving environment reinforces stigma surrounding mental illness. Acknowledging a mental health disorder is often perceived as an admission of failure – especially when everyone around you seems to be equally stressed and is still managing to hand in their papers on time. 

In such an high-pressure environment, it’s important that we pay attention to ourselves, recognize when our mental health is compromised, and not be ashamed to seek help. In the past few years, McGill Mental Health has been criticized for providing poor service to students, but this year’s new director claims that they are transitioning to a more effective system. We hope these improvements will materialize, but it is important to realize that there are a number of other services on and off campus through which to seek help for mental health issues. Support groups like McGill’s Headspace, affordable counseling services, therapists, and psychiatrists at public and private medical centres are available across the city. Unfortunately, the demand for psychological and psychiatric care is often higher than the capacity for patients but like with any other illness, we should recognize when we need to turn to professionals in order to get better.

At the very least, we should be helping one other. Mental illness is often a scary and lonely experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Talk about it – whether you are struggling, or a friend seems to be having a harder time than usual. The more cognizant, informed, and open we are about mental health, the more stigmas will be broken down, and the more healthy our student body will be.