News  Student mental health gains national attention

McGill students talk to The Daily about their experiences

“When I skipped a [chemistry] midterm to sit alone in the library, I knew I needed help,” Dylan*, then a U0 Science student, told The Daily. He never thought that he would be affected by anxiety; he was in many ways a typical, easy-going undergraduate student. “I had a great time at Frosh, I was making lots of new friends, and was generally taking it slow for the first part of the semester.”

Then, around his first midterms, panic set in.

“At first, I thought it was just normal stress. Everyone goes through crunch time in October. Then, it started to get worse; I skipped classes because I felt unprepared and stressed out. At a certain point, I just couldn’t leave my room anymore.”

Dylan’s story is one of many at McGill. Mental Health Services saw an estimated 20,000 visits in the 2010-11 school year, double the figure seen five years prior.

Nina*, an Arts student who met with a counsellor in her second semester, also found the transition to McGill very trying.

“McGill was scary […] I did really poorly in my first semester, and felt pretty lost,” she said. In addition, she was coping with family mental health issues and the stress of working part-time. By the time her second semester began, Nina was suffering from depression.

A recurring theme in conversations about mental health at McGill is the role of academic stress in triggering or exacerbating mental health issues. Students who spoke with The Daily pointed to grade deflation and adjustment to life in a new city as triggering mental health issues.

This issue is gaining a great deal of attention nationwide. According to The Globe and Mail, after having experienced a rash of student deaths in the last few years, Queen’s University established a committee in 2012 to reduce the impact of mental health issues at the university. The committee produced a report outlining 116 recommendations for change, ranging from proactive intervention, to the rescheduling of exams, to the extension of the semester.

According to Katrina Bartellas, co-founder of the McGill chapter of Unleash the Noise, a peer support group run as a supplement to campus mental health services, student mental health issues often go unaddressed until they reach a breaking point.

“We are not helping ourselves by neglecting our mental health until it reaches a critical point,” she told The Daily by email. “Instead, we need to be mindful of our mental health on a continual basis, especially as students.”

Nina, for example, only sought help at the suggestion of a professor at the end of her first year. By this point, she had already reached a low point and was considering dropping out.

Like many others, Nina encountered difficulties in relating her experience to her peers. “McGill creates a very competitive atmosphere that’s conducive to harsh judgment between peers […] some people have serious difficulties that require specific support.”

Bartellas spoke to the stigmatization of mental health issues by pointing to the “Bridge the Gap” speaker series run by Unleash the Noise.

“The mandate of the speaker series is to bridge the gap in understanding between McGill students, faculty, and staff with either direct or indirect lived experience[s] with mental illness and those without,” she said. “Simply put, individuals at McGill with mental illness, or with a friend or family member with mental illness, share their personal story with others to decrease stigmatized attitudes on campus.”

The Queen’s University report ultimately recommended greater administrative and academic flexibility, comprehensive stress-management strategies, and longer semesters with less dense coursework to help prevent many students from experiencing severe anxiety and depression.

This year at McGill has seen various initiatives at McGill to address mental health. The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)has formed an ad-hoc mental health committee, and the University’s joint Senate-Board of Governors meeting this year featured a theme on mental health. Additionally, according to information provided by McGill’s Director of Internal Communications Doug Sweet, wait lists at Mental Health Services have gone down this term from 270 to 56 people.

According to Bartellas, a new mental health policy created under the SSMU ad-hoc committee will soon be presented to Council.

As for Dylan, his outcome was fortunate; not wanting to wait for help from McGill, he decided to see a private therapist. “It’s expensive, yeah, but I was facing academic probation and I knew that I couldn’t go on suffering.” With cognitive behavioural therapy and stress management planning, in addition to informing and working with professors, he learned to manage his anxiety and organize his thoughts positively.

“I know there [are] lots of people who are nervous to get psychological help; I was one of them. Just go for it, and don’t worry about others; your health matters first.”

*Names have been changed.