University is not just about survival of the fittest any more. Top-ranked schools such as Queen's and McGill are trying to look out for their students' mental health in an entirely new way.
Some see this as a bad thing. The young people at university are adults, the argument goes, and should learn to stand on their own two feet. Coddling begets a coddled generation. Or as Margaret Wente wrote in these pages, university isn't supposed to be easy.
We don't see it that way. Queen's is borrowing its proposed new mental health framework from a top Ivy League school, Cornell University – and Cornell follows the model drawn up by the U.S. Air Force. Not a place for the coddled.
The Queen's program is one of the first systematic attempts in Canada that we are aware of to be totally open about mental health. The university's response to a cluster of suicides and accidental deaths in 2010 and 2011 is not just fine-sounding words but practical, concrete approaches to helping people succeed in a stressful environment.
One idea floated by principal Daniel Woolf is to have a two-day break from classes in November "to catch your breath." Another is to ensure that exams don't pile up on students, especially in first-year. "I had a chat with a student in Tim Horton's. He had two exams back-to-back that day, and another one the following morning. He was okay, but do we have to pile them up that way?" Courses might be re-designed so large amounts of content aren't dumped on students in September.
If universities can't experiment, who can? There's no reason they have to do things the way they've always done them. Maybe they are organized in ways that increase stress without producing an accurate measure of what students know and can do.
Schools should foster talent, not sink it.
Maybe the question is what took so long? Queen's points to Carleton University's Bounceback program for a mentorship idea; any first-year undergraduate whose first-semester average is under 60 per cent receives an email from an upper-year facilitator inviting them into a program that helps them determine where they're going wrong.
Another support Queen's is looking at would teach students how to succeed in university – how to use the libraries and information systems, how to register for courses, how to write exams and deal with anxiety, how to eat and sleep well. It's sensible to give newcomers some guidance.
A more radical approach would permit some first-year students to drop a bad mark that could limit their success or harm their confidence. Queen's uses the term "false start" because it may not reflect the student's true abilities. If we truly want (as we say we do) students to take risks and not to fear failure, it makes sense not to punish failures severely.
Yet another potentially far-reaching move would extend the accommodations already being granted to students registered with Queen's Disability Services Office. For students who suddenly face "extenuating circumstances" there would be a campus-wide plan to make accommodations. Why should a student have to go on bended knee to a professor or department head to ask for support or special consideration?
In part, the approach at Queen's, the University of Calgary, Ryerson, Carleton, McGill and others is a recognition that large numbers of students have serious mental illnesses. About four per cent of students surveyed in six Ontario post-secondary schools said they have a diagnosed psychiatric condition, 15 per cent have been treated for mental health problems, 36 per cent have felt so depressed they said it was hard to function, and 53 per cent said they felt overwhelmed by anxiety. It makes sense to try preventive approaches – counselling services are overburdened.
"We're simply doing what the most progressive workplaces are doing," Dr. Woolf says, citing Bell Canada as an example.
Why are so many students facing mental-health problems? There is no simple answer. Advances in psychotropic drugs have enabled some to succeed who would have fallen through the cracks in previous generations. And when stigma eases, problems become more visible – on the whole, a good thing.
Some students of ability and drive have failed to thrive because of a perfect storm of circumstance, or because of an untreated mental illness, or because they felt alone and unsupported, or because they were the first in their family to reach university and felt lost or overwhelmed. And who loses? They do as individuals. And the country loses the contributions they might have made.
Universities such as Queen's are a good place to try out some new ideas that may presage a wider change in how society views mental health and the need to support one another.