McGill Mental Health Services

Commentary  Chasing mental health at McGill

The University should be accountable for student well-being

Warning: this article contains potentially triggering descriptions of suicidal ideation.

“I think I’m suicidal,” I told the front desk staff after I finally brought myself to the McGill Mental Health Service (MMHS) during reading week last March. Except for long naps and taking too much Advil and Tylenol, this is one of my only memories from last spring. I was instructed to fill out a form by one staff member while another was laughing at a joke someone had told.

I was asked a variety of questions in triage to determine the severity of my suicidal ideation. At the end of the assessment, the doctor said I could go home. I asked what would happen if I tried to killed myself before my next appointment rolled around. “Go to the nearest hospital,” she said. Then she left because another student was waiting for her.

That day, I contemplated throwing myself in the middle of Rene Levesque or jumping off of a bridge onto the Ville-Marie Expressway. But I didn’t, somehow. Somehow I made it home that day. Somehow I made it to that next appointment and survived last spring. But I was lucky; not everyone does.

The Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) position, currently occupied by Ollivier Dyens, has the goal of “advancing the quality of student life and learning at all levels.” In response to concerns raised at a PGSS Council meeting in May about the inability of the MMHS to meet demand, Dyens said, among other explanations and deflections, “We are not a hospital.”

I’m not sure what would have happened to me had I not been in Montreal over the break and able to access the MMHS with a wait time of days instead of months, as there were more vacancies than usual. That is why I literally stopped what I was doing and sobbed when I saw the quote from Dyens in a recent news article published by The Daily. I would like to give the administration the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the administrators of our school are just unaware of the prevalence of mental health issues on campus that make these services so very essential. So, I would like to give a few examples.

A friend of mine lost her counselling privileges because her counsellor graduated. (Because counselling is about the psychology students in training, not those in need of care, right?) She had to fill out the forms again to get on the waitlist for a new counsellor.

Another friend eventually dropped out of university after six months of seeing a different counsellor at each visit.

Another friend, although in care, is unsatisfied with their emotionally abusive, misgendering, homophobic psychiatrist, but would rather hang on to this psychiatrist than risk not receiving care at all.

Another friend was never able to get an appointment with MMHS despite repeated promises of receiving a call, and eventually opted to take on the financial burden of seeing a private therapist instead.

Another friend was directed by a psychiatrist to the Counselling Service, which she didn’t find helpful at all.

The stories I tend to hear, like the ones above, are from people who are comfortable openly discussing their mental health, those who have overcome the stigma of accessing mental health support and do reach out. Many do not. Many suffer silently.

This can be the case for a variety of reasons. For example, mental health is an incredibly gendered issue: men are less likely to seek help for mental health issues due to constructions of masculinity that demand for them to be ‘tough’ and stifle their emotions.

Furthermore, there is a lack of continuity between MMHS and other university authority figures and services that makes handling the fallout of mental health problems difficult and intimidating. It doesn’t matter how sick we are, we still have to perform the emotional labour of pleading and begging with professors to give us just two more days, one more week, so maybe we can get ourselves together to hand in our papers and write our midterms. And when we can’t do this and seek withdrawal, we have to discuss it and justify it all over again at Service Point.

When I went to Service Point to withdraw from two courses last year, I was condescendingly told that I should “keep in mind late withdrawal is a serious matter and my requests for further withdrawals will likely be denied.” As if I wanted to withdraw, as if being disappointed with myself for having wasted tuition money wasn’t enough, as if the struggle to finally bring myself to put my mental health over academics was a choice I had made lightly.

But why is there so much demand for mental health support that Dyens feels the need to differentiate our school from a hospital in the first place?

McGill is hard! As much as we tend to dismiss this after we are accepted into university, save for venting during finals, it’s true – McGill is a high-pressure, very competitive academic environment that can be particularly harsh on students. Even harder than McGill is the struggle that comes after: navigating a ruthless job market filled with nepotism. If we dare dream of a job somewhat relevant to our degrees after graduation, we need to be superstars: chase those 4.0 GPAs, be a club president, do research for our professors, complete unpaid internships. Add to this the fact that many of us are facing a new and challenging academic environment while far from our families and support systems in a new city, or, for many, in a new country. We may be going through culture shock, trying to learn a new language, or adjusting to living in university residences; trying to ‘adult’ for the first time is challenging. While the McGill experience demands excellence from those who pursue it, it doesn’t reciprocate with the same calibre of support for those who struggle.

Instead, we are kindly reminded that our university is not a hospital.

Going to a hospital, as seems to be a popular suggestion, is no easy task. For roughly two-thirds of us, attending university in Quebec means having to navigate a new healthcare system. That can be challenging, especially for international students new to the Canadian medical establishment, but also for other international students or out-of-province students, since most healthcare facilities do not accept out-of-province healthcare cards – Quebec has no reciprocal healthcare agreement with other provinces, meaning out-of-province insurance holders often have to pay upfront and file a claim afterward. Additionally, the French language barrier can make it more difficult for some students to communicate their needs to off-campus mental health service providers.

Seeking mental health care and accepting one’s mental illness can be a scary thought in itself, and not being able to reach this care in a more familiar, student-friendly setting – which is largely funded by our own student fees – only impedes access for students who are already struggling. I, for one, can tell you that it would have probably taken me a much longer time to access the care I needed if I had to navigate a less familiar and more expensive healthcare system.

So I’d like to tell Dyens that McGill shouldn’t have to be a hospital to provide sufficient mental health resources to students. There are simply too many of us on antidepressants, there are too many of us struggling day to day to survive. If this isn’t a crisis worthy of additional funding and resources, I don’t know what it is. The underlying message in saying “We are not a hospital” – that McGill’s students shouldn’t expect more – is excruciatingly offensive to those of us who cannot even remember what a good day looks like. So long as McGill refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for the well-being of its students, short of accessing private care or dropping out, we have no choice but to struggle to somehow survive in a broken system.

Paniz Khosroshahy is a U2 Women’s Studies and Computer Science student. To reach her, email