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Speculative Diction

Student (mental health) problems are “real” problems


Much attention has been paid to student mental health issues over the past year, and recently the level of coverage peaked with a new report from Queen’s University at the end of November (PDF here). The report came from an initiative prompted by a number of student deaths by suicide at Queen’s in 2010 and 2011. On a related note, some of you may recall a post I wrote a year ago (and a follow-up), regarding Ph.D. attrition and mental health issues such as stress and depression.

Last week, a blog post from HESA’s Alex Usher invoked both the more recent media attention to undergraduate stress, and my own (aforementioned) post, expressing skepticism about the reality of an “epidemic” of mental health troubles. The post is written as a kind of “Mythbusters 101” about student mental health, and the topic is unfortunately treated as if it is merely the fad of the month (or year) in Canadian postsecondary education (PSE). While it’s always a compliment when someone engages with something I’ve written, I believe the compliment is a backhanded one in this case, since the arguments I made about graduate education are quickly dismissed as a smokescreen for Ph.D. student “angst” and fear of (real or imagined) failure.

This choice of term is revealing; “angst” is a significant word because through connotation, it both individualizes and trivializes the problem. Here, it is part of an argument about “the tendency to over-medicalize daily life”, a comment that assumes there’s nothing going on in daily life that should be considered “stressful”. The very point I was trying to make in my post, a year ago, was that the problems of stress and anxiety are not just attributable to individual weaknesses or quirks of circumstance–not when we can identify certain patterns unfolding across systems over long periods. Suggesting that the problem lies with individuals’ interpretations of their circumstances, rather than being (also) a structural and cultural one, is dismissive of the elements in an equation that may be beyond the individual’s control. We need more understanding about what those might be, rather than an assumption that they aren’t part of the equation.

As others have already pointed out, there are a number of causes for increased visibility of mental health issues among students (not just in Canada), but that doesn’t mean the issues weren’t there before or that they haven’t been building over time; they’re long-term and influenced by systemic factors. For example, the massification of PSE, and related increases to costs, have changed the kinds of students who attend university and the circumstances from which they have to work on their education. This means more students who have fewer (academic, financial, and cultural) resources to draw on, and are more likely to be struggling to keep up for various reasons. So perhaps students are “a lot more fragile, and less prepared” than in the past — but not necessarily for the reasons provided by Usher.

It’s also a problem to assess students’ financial straits primarily by looking at tuition numbers. This is a very superficial way to examine finances, no matter what other argument is being made (in this case, Usher also argues tuition has not really increased–and neither has student debt). It’s particularly problematic when we know there has been a serious economic recession that has affected finances in many ways that go far beyond tuition and other fees. Stress from financial difficulty is a serious problem to which some people have much more immunity than others. To be financially vulnerable is to be exposed, perpetually, to the possibility of loss and disruption. It often signals, or in fact creates, a parallel social isolation; this is why it’s impossible to deny the reflexive link between mental health and poverty.

There’s also a recurring gripe, raised again by Usher and of course taken up with much enthusiasm by Margaret Wente in her latest column (the argument has been “answered” eloquently by Gary Mason here), that accuses young students of having (ironically?) “too much self esteem”. I’m not sure where this assumption could be coming from — perhaps the focus on “high achieving” students? — but it certainly doesn’t match the experiences I’ve had working with undergraduate students in universities over the past eight years or so. Perhaps this is all part of the new “young people don’t have it as bad as they think” discourse that seems to be emerging, though much of that commentary is coming from those who benefited most from what young people are now losing, i.e. the welfare state systems of education, health, and pensions.

Sure, the “kids” have expectations–which were happily passed along to them from their parents’ generation. They were told that if they worked hard and went to university, there would be a job at the end of it. They were told that standards of living could keep rising, and that they could do what their parents did, but somehow do better. Yet the real bubble–that 30-year blimp of post-war prosperity–has long since gone down in flames, and we’re finally seeing the long-term effects. This is about more than changes to the job market or periodic recessions; it’s about risk, speculation on long-term “outcomes” of larger “investments” being made by people when they’re at a young age, when they cannot expect the kind of socioeconomic mobility that their parents could. Yet commentators continue to assume that all this must be the responsibility of the individual, the family, perhaps even the school system (since education is supposed to prepare us for life — and it perpetually “fails” at this).

Wente’s comment that “stress is a fact of life at university” disturbingly echoes the “everyone has a breakdown!” mentality that I described in my initial post about PhDs and depression. While she describes herself as “extremely sympathetic to the issue of students’ mental health”, the actual argument is, “if I could take it–they should be able to take it too.” But if we take a step back, the larger context might start to look like a recipe for stress; and if you think undergrad students are worried about jobs, you should see Ph.D. students who want university faculty careers. So I must disagree that structural issues in the university, and in the larger society and economy, can be written off so easily as “angst”.

I would argue that comparisons to the 1990s are not really useful, because the problems of disappointed expectations and increasing stress (over outcomes), both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, are not just blips on the historical-economic radar. They signal the end of a way of life, or rather, a life trajectory, and at a deeper level, a kind of betrayal of trust that further dents our faith in social progress. Whatever we may think about “kids these days”, one thing’s for sure: unless you start out in a nice solid position on the socioeconomic class ladder, sustainable ascension is more and more of a challenge. That means it’s harder to have the things in life we’ve been told we should want — a home, a family, some security for the times when we can no longer work to sustain ourselves.

From what I can tell, the majority of young people entering university want to be able to do something reasonably meaningful, and sustainable, with their lives–without having to be perpetually concerned about whether finances and lack of social capital will trump opportunity at every turn. If those expectations are too high, then I would ask, what exactly is “reasonable”?

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. JoVE / December 10, 2012 at 15:47

    Even if one starts in a reasonably good position on the economic ladder the reality of the current economy is that it is very difficult to maintain that position on your own. And yet parents and others are very keen on maintaining that socioeconomic status. This probably increases the stress.

    Which is to say that the structural argument you make applies to everyone, not just the “new” entrants to PSE. It looks different depending on background but the collapse of the welfare state and the changes in the economy really are changing the game.

  2. Anne-Marie / December 10, 2012 at 17:09

    I think there is value to demonstrating what, specifically, a graduate student budget might look like. Of course, it varies significantly based on circumstances. Still, I’ve too often come across the University administrators who, on the topic of financial stress, laugh the matter off, citing the amount of ‘flexible capital’ they had access to as grads, back in the day. What remains unaccounted for are things such as the heightened competition for teaching and research assistantships, for external and internal funding, as well as the lack of available funding for international students -a growing proportion of University attendees- who also don’t qualify for many other benefits and opportunities. And this still doesn’t account for the financial realities of grads who have dependents, or the restrictions placed on part-time status, or the rise of tuition above and beyond the rate of inflation, or the incontestable need nowadays for students to have access to computers, not only to write papers, but also for participation points and other marks.

  3. Alex Usher / December 10, 2012 at 23:06

    Hi Melanie,

    I think you’ve misinterpreted a key point of my post (which is probably me not explaining myself very well – happens a lot).

    I wasn’t dismissing mental health issues in general as “angst”. I was describing the specific set of issues that you brought up in your follow-up post (specifically, stuff like “insecurity”, “guilt”, “self-doubt”, etc) – as angst. Hell, I have all of those most days. It’s not the same thing as poor mental health.

    Also, I think the argument that we shouldn’t make comparisons to the 1990s because, essentially, “it’s different this time” is unconvincing. We all thought the same in the mid-90s, too (read, for instance, Jeremy Rifkin’s “The End of Work”). Now, you might say that in retrospect that it wasn’t – but we didn’t know that at the time, so it’s not clear why one would conclude that the reaction should have been any different then than now (and hey, it may not turn out to be true this time either).

  4. saa / December 11, 2012 at 12:44

    Test them for D3 deficiency. They’re in Canada. It’s winter. They have weird diets, there is no way they are getting enough D3 and it effects the mind.

    25 Hydroxy D3 blood test.

    They won’t need giant doses. Deficiency can be corrected with as little as 2500 iu/day. But likely they are D3 deficient and likely it is affecting their mental state.

  5. Steven Siciliano / December 12, 2012 at 10:12


    I read with interest the posts by Usher and yourself regarding graduate student mental health issues. I should preface my comments with the proviso that my comments may only apply for students in natural science and engineering fields as I have no experience in the non-NSE fields. Further, I am a graduate chair for two graduate programs in a research intensive institution. Based on my perspective, I found myself disagreeing with both of you. I don’t agree with Usher that things are the same as they were in the 1990’s and I don’t agree with you that the major issue is monetary stress.
    In my opinion this is the best and worst time in recent memory to be a graduate student. It’s the best time because in the natural science and engineering fields, MSc and PhD graduate students are obtaining full and meaningful employment at good wages immediately out of graduate school. It’s the worst time because of two changes in science training since the 1990’s.
    First, the advent of easily accessible programming languages have significantly increased the availability of advanced programs for use in data analysis As a result, graduate students are now expected to be conversant with many more types of analysis than they would have been in the 1990’s. These analyses all require significant theoretical underpinning and as a result, a student’s breadth of knowledge is expected to be greater. For example, rather than a student spending months learning the physically painstaking task of identifying bacteria by hand, students can now send samples out for analysis at molecular facilities. Thus, laboratory bench skills have been replaced with numerical analysis and thus, the hours a typical graduate student in the 1990’s would spend running gels, which is a fairly mindless activity, have been replaced by hours trying to understand molecular ‘pipelines’ in which each step is a significant theoretical concept. As a result, students now need a greater theoretical breadth of knowledge and don’t have the intellectual ‘downtime’ of mindless benchwork to help them integrate it. This has the added detrimental effect of reducing all of those casual lab conversations one would have with other graduate students which provided much needed emotional support.
    Second, expectations of scientific productivity have vastly increased for graduate students in the sciences. Three publications is now considered the minimum and for students wishing to pursue academia, six to 10 is more the norm. In addition, changes in scholarship programs and hiring procedures means that students’ must also demonstrate ‘leadership’ and must teach a full undergraduate course. This is a daunting task list.
    Mental health is a significant issue amongst graduate students. I would invite Wente and Usher to spend the three months that our new PhD students just went through: a twice weekly review class plus tutorial to prepare them for their PhD qualifying exam, plus two graduate courses in their displinary area of focus and development of a PhD research proposal. I can attest that our students are not whiners, nor are they ill prepared by their education or parental backgrounds. Rather PhD programs test students to their limits. The education provided by the PhD process provides the students with the advanced skills and knowledge that allow them to get good jobs in the Canadian economy. Somehow we need to find better support systems to avoid pushing any student over their limit while they are obtaining these advanced qualifications.

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