On Campus

Pushing students to go to university may lead to depression

Many young people feel too much pressure to go to uni

In the wake of a high-profile suicide at Carleton, there has been a flurry of news reports about depression on campus and the role of the university in preventing such deaths. With the aid of the U.S. 2007 National Survey of Counselling Centre Directors, I’ll offer a few thoughts on the issue.

RELATED NEWS: Suicidal student sought treatment from Carleton counsellors

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. This isn’t news because a student has killed herself. It’s news because she was initially missing and so a big hunt was underway. If she were found in her room we wouldn’t even be talking about this. The survey Carson sent me includes 105 reported student suicides in 2007 (with helpful statistics about how each student did it) and those are only the reported numbers. I’m sure the actuals are higher.

If we project similar numbers onto the Canadian landscape we’d have to expect around a dozen acknowledged suicides each year, and as a ballpark I’d guess the real number is probably twice that. I wish it were unique enough that every such incident were worthy of national news, but the truth is that it’s not.

Nevertheless, regardless of why this incident is suddenly news, it’s going to invite everyone to think more deeply about depression, psychological problems, and the risk of suicide among students. Inevitably, there’s always some program aimed at beefing up counselling, better advising, better drugs (can’t pump people full of enough drugs these days), and that calls to involve parents more fully in the university lives of their legally-adult children.

I have deep sympathy for the student’s family and I imagine it’s the most natural thing in the world to wonder about every single thing that might have been done differently to prevent this outcome, but kudos to the university for stating the uncomfortable truth. You can’t counsel adults in an environment where their counselors are going to pick up the phone and call their parents at the first sign of trouble. Legal adulthood means legal adulthood, with all that follows. It doesn’t matter if someone is still a student or not.

Personally, I’m really not too fascinated by all these ex post facto attempts to address the problems of student stress, depression, psychological disorders, and suicide. These are all attempts to mitigate the damage of a messed up situation rather than prevent the scenario in the first place. I can’t fault the well-intentioned professionals who take care of and worry about student counselling but I think of them as paramedics who respond to car accidents after they happen. Their services are only engaged once there already is a problem. I’m more interested in preventing accidents before they occur, and I wonder all the time about what we’re doing in post-secondary education that leaves so many students feeling stressed beyond endurance, hopeless about their lives, and unable to cope.

Students are human. Some people have more trouble coping than others, or are prone to various ailments. This is all obvious. But it seems to me that things get really toxic when people who are having trouble coping, or may be prone to depression and other problems, are forced into situations where they don’t want to be, or else are trapped in environments they’d like to escape.

Many examples are possible and are well understood as problematic –- bad marriages and relationships, difficult work situations, poverty, environments that contribute to cycles of addiction, etc. Almost invariably, part of the problem in each of these examples is that the people who are trapped fail or refuse to see the options they have for escape, or can’t imagine that things could ever improve. People can leave bad relationships, after all, but often don’t. Folks can quit stressful jobs and change careers, but they’re afraid and reluctant. The list goes on.

The problems inherent in university are very similar to these examples. Much as (most) students are independent adults in a legal sense, when they arrive, they are still very much bound by the expectations and influence exerted by parents, peers, and the assumptions of their childhoods.

For many students, university has been pushed on them almost all their young lives as literally the only thinkable option. This may not cause any problems in the majority of cases. I happen to think this pattern sends many young people into post-secondary education before they are ready to fully benefit from it, but that’s a peripheral issue. For students who are at least stable and manage to cope in university, it isn’t a crisis-inducing problem that they can’t imagine any other option. But what about those who aren’t stable, or are failing, or are terminally unhappy?

This is where I like to remind people that university education is a long-term commitment. Four years is a very long time by any stretch of the imagination. No one would ever say “just try this relationship for four years.” No one would say “just stick with this job for four years.” But with the best of intentions so many parents have this “just try it” attitude towards higher education. You can’t just try something for four years! Even one year is a long time. From the perspective of someone who is buckling in that environment, it might as well be forever.

I am firmly convinced that until we accept the most essential problem here – that we are exerting so much pressure on young people that they feel forced into university when at least some of them don’t belong there – then no efforts to soften the environment or to make it more comfortable for students in distress are going to be sufficient. You can help the students who are having minor problems adjusting or coping, but you can’t help the ones who just shouldn’t be there in the first place except by helping them to leave.

This is an advising blog. So here’s my advice to students, parents, counselors, and everyone else. The best thing in the world you can do for any student is to make it okay to not be a student. So damn often we act as though anyone who isn’t getting a university education is a failure in our society, and it simply isn’t true. Don’t put that on your kids, don’t put that on the people who turn to you for advice, and don’t put that on each other. It only contributes to situations where students, who maybe shouldn’t be students (at least not right now), feel unable to take the steps they need to take in order to be happy and healthy.

Like many problems in life, it’s a lot easier to say than to do, but the solution at least starts with saying it. You don’t need to be in university. If you are unhappy and unable to cope you don’t need to suffer all the time. It will still be there for you later, when you’re ready, and the people who actually care about you should bloody well respect your decisions.

I didn’t know Nadia Kajouji. But I have the natural instinct to wonder how things could have gone differently. I wonder if anyone ever told her it was okay to not be in university right now. I wonder if anyone ever told her that despite the advertising, and the rhetoric, and the bullshit, she could still be a valuable and successful person without a post-secondary education. I wonder if anyone ever told her she had time, and could take a year or two off to see to her own health and well-being, rather than always worrying about the next test or assignment coming due. I wonder.

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