Campus Mental Health

My ex-husband grew up in a tight-knit Ukrainian community in Winnipeg. He attended a Ukrainian Catholic church, went to a neighbourhood school, and attended additional Ukrainian studies on Saturdays. Everyone knew everyone. “When I was a kid,” he said, “if you got in trouble at school, you caught hell at home from your parents, and then you caught hell in church on Sunday.” While this authoritarian upbringing had its downsides, at least a kid knew where he or she stood in the world. The rules were clear.

Not so for today’s youth. The world is wide open. Young adults in Western countries are presented with endless choices about how to be in the world, and we generally figure this is positive. Choice is good right? Particularly as a woman, I am personally damn happy I’ve had choices about when to have children, what kind of education I could get and what kind of job I could hold. These choices weren’t available to women only a few short decades ago.

Choice means freedom. And we do not question the value of freedom. But freedom to do … what? Freedom to be…what? What is it that freedom is supposed to provide us with that we value? This question has big, big political implications that I won’t go into here.[1] Instead I’d like to focus on the psychological consequences of freedom: specifically, on the consequences when the “freedom to… what?” question has few boundaries. In short, how do we respond when we are presented with almost limitless choices about what kind of person to be?

The Paradox of Freedom
The gist here is that freedom kind of screws us up. The paradox of freedom — of having all kinds of choices — is that it causes us all kinds of anxiety and uncertainty. We crave the freedom to do whatever we damn well please, but we also crave community and a sense of belonging, which we can’t have if we insist on doing whatever we damn well please. It is part of our human make-up to want boundaries that help us to set a course in life, and gain a stable sense of our place in the world. At the same time, we chafe against those constraints.

The paradox of freedom has a long history in philosophy, and later in sociology and psychology. It was considered by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in the 1940s. In the 1990s, sociologist Anthony Giddens described “late modernity” as a contemporary condition in which our life choices and identities are less and less defined by traditional social institutions like family, religion, geographical communities, and by life events that unfold in “normal” predictable sequences. Giddens recognized the positive aspects of people having more choices, but like Fromm, he also saw anxiety and alienation as potential outcomes of this heightened individualism.

One of my favourite books, Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice hits on similar themes, focusing on how the endless array of choices in consumer products essentially fries our brains. We become paralyzed and exhausted by all the “little choices” we face every day — many about stupid things that don’t really matter much — and have less of our thinking power left over to contemplate the important choices.

Campus Mental Health
I’m thinking about this in the contexts of the Deloitte report on support services in Ontario post-sec institutions, which I addressed in a previous blog. The report cites some pretty staggering increases in the numbers of students coming forward seeking counseling or academic accommodations. Motivations for help-seeking are a soup of learning disabilities, mental health issues, addictions, and of just generally not being sufficiently prepared to manage in a post-sec learning environment. The report states that colleges are seeing “lower resilience and independence in new students,” who thus require more support services. This poses a big problem for unis and colleges because they simply can’t keep up with the demand. So that’s the big takeaway.

But how did we get here? In my last blog I talked about the erosion of the kinds of human services that used to be provided by the state, such that these problems are downloaded onto schools, from K-12 right through to post-sec. The Deloitte report also discusses student diversity, which is in part a nice way of saying that not everyone is academically or psychologically prepared to get through a program of studies. Finally, the report mentions that mental health issues are less stigmatized than they have been in the past, so students are more likely to come forward.[2]

There’s a deeper problem though. In my reading in both K-12 and post-secondary education there are frequent concerns expressed about students experiencing anxiety and depression: two conditions that are notoriously hard to pin down because they are experienced in such varying degrees, and because it’s tough determine how brain chemicals and environmental conditions intertwine when we’re functioning but chronically miserable.

I’d argue that environment play a pretty significant role. Young adults — well all of us really – are untethered. Too “free” as Giddens claims, in that social norms around life passages like dating, marriage, post-secondary education, career transitions and having children have largely dissolved.

Universities and colleges form concentrations of human beings who, in their student roles, are trying to navigate these life passages. into the “adult” world of work and relationships. Reliable rules, guidelines and historical precedents that might be helpful are scarce. Financial uncertainty and job precarity are given conditions for many graduates. Young people enter adulthood expecting to be saddled with student loan debt, and are cautioned that they can expect to be “churned” in the job market. These conditions further destabilize efforts to plan and achieve a stable life trajectory. Hell, why wouldn’t campus mental health be an issue?

If there’s a point to be made out of all of this, I’d emphasize the need for us to step back from our global unchecked belief that “freedom is awesome” and recognize that our liberalism and individualism — two social values that we just assume to be good things— are out of whack. Run amok, they are sources widespread suffering and alienation. Yet we do not question them.

To wit, the “mental health crisis” on campuses is for the most part framed as a resource problem: one of insufficient resources as individual students seek individual professional counseling for what they perceive to be individual problems. It’s all individuals, all the time. Sadly, this isn’t surprising given that post-secondary institutions — universities on particular — are environments that promote and celebrate individualism, competition and a pretty narrow understanding of what it means to lead a successful life.

From Individual Supports to Community
The paradox of freedom highlights the need for campus-based solutions that de-program this default worship of individualism. Intentional community spaces and community-oriented classrooms must acknowledge, validate, and serve our very human need to belong. Individualized counseling and support services are unsustainably expensive – that’s the conclusion of the Deloitte report. They also keep students isolated in their fear, uncertainty and sadness when they most need to know that they are not alone.

Only a more community-oriented support strategy can re-introduce some of the boundaries and social relationships students need to navigate the bewildering choices they face in figuring out how to live well for themselves and others.



[1] Well okay maybe I’ll go into it a tiny bit. Politically, this question tends to be downplayed by dominant liberal perspectives: freedom to do is freedom to “do whatever you want.” Freedom to be is to “be whatever you want.” Because the definition of a “good life” is left up to the individual, there’s less need to talk about what a good life might look like for a whole society. There are some good reasons to be wary of governments telling you how to live your life. But if a government doesn’t impose some social order, you end up with what Thomas Hobbes called a “war of all against all.” This is an enduring dilemma for political philosophers.

[2] The broad uptake of these ideas in public discourses have been accompanied by these conditions being medicalized and “treatable.” In other words, our collective diagnoses of our troubles and our strategies for solving them are increasingly mediated through professional services, and often through psycho-pharmaceuticals. You know. Prozac and stuff. One of the enduring contributions of philosopher Michel Foucault was his illustration that our understanding of craziness isn’t objective: it is different in different societies and different historical periods. The extreme application of this concept may be found in the anti-psychiatry movement. Lots about the anti-psychiatry movement is pretty nutters in and of itself, but it still offers a very, very valuable critique that helps us to challenge our automatic beliefs about mental health and its treatment. But I digress.

Welcome to the Welfare Campus

Once upon a time, there was a welfare state. As a society, Canadians supported a social safety net. It was taken as normal and humane to promote full employment and offer universal social programs that promoted family and community stability and wellbeing. There were vestiges of this line of thinking when I was a kid growing up in the seventies, but by the early 1980s, with the Reagan/Thatcher administrations leading a global political movement of capitalist de-regulation, the dismantling of public services and publicly owned resources began in earnest.

This shift in ideology from welfarism to neo-liberalism was profound, but if you’re under 35 – say my kids’ age – you probably have no context for the change. You’ve grown up in a country that promotes economic growth at the expense of human services.[1] Funding of health care, employment insurance, public education, community-based services is, for many voters and the governments they elect, a lower priority than minimizing personal and corporate taxation.

So, here is what’s weird, but not really: human needs for relationships, financial stability, hope, and progress have not disappeared just because they were removed from the public agenda in the neo-liberal era. These needs are alive and well. They’re just not taken seriously in public policy. There’s no end of rhetoric about supporting people in need, but it pretty much stops at rhetoric. We’re tinkering around the edges of a hollowed out public sector, with neither the funding, imagination or voter will to shift course and actually deliver on the kinds of public goods that promote a healthy society.

I’m going to propose here that this has a lot to do with how the post-secondary campus has come to function as a new, mini-welfare state. Post-secondary education is less and less about education, and more and more about addressing social needs and social problems. What does this look like? In short:

  • Instead of employment centers and career counseling provided by provincial governments, PSIs (that’s “post-secondary institutions”) have been mandated increasing responsibility for workforce training, and transitioning graduates to the labour market.
  • Instead of funding K-12 public education with the resources needed to support all students in achieving a serviceable high school diploma, PSIs are asked to provide remedial learning through bridging programs and expanded academic support services.
  • Instead of adequately funding public health care to address both the roots and manifestations of mental illness and substance abuse, teachers in schools and faculty in PSIs are “first responders” without the training or resources to offer help.
  • Instead of seeking different responses to deep structural changes in the labour market that have rendered many workers – especially young people and immigrants – precariously employed, “more education” is promoted, sending reams people into education and training without adequate direction, funding, or family and support communities.
  • Instead of public policing and the formal legal system dealing with students’ “bad behaviour,” PSIs develop their own security services, risk management practices and quasi-judicial bodies to deal with sexual assault and violence on campus.

It’s no surprise, then, that a recently published report commissioned by Colleges Ontario is calling for more funding to support students’ non-academic needs. All post-secondary institutions – but colleges in particular – are between a rock and hard place here: PSIs are mandated to accept and support tidal waves of “non-traditional” and international students who may come to college with academic deficits, language barriers, and/or psycho-social barriers, but – and this is the gist of the report – they don’t have the resources to develop and manage all the infrastructure required to offer these supports. The Deloitte report concludes that the present strategy of funding these programs out of general revenues is “unsustainable.”

If we back away from the immediate funding problem highlighted in the report, we ought to be asking not “how can universities and colleges pay for this stuff,” but whether they should even be providing all this stuff in the first place. Colleges and universities were designed to give students an education. In elite schools and liberal arts institutions, this education has also included some pastoral or familial-style care of students in residence, but these “student life” functions were ancillary to the core mission of institutions. Today, “student affairs” constitute a massive, professionalized and formalized range of services with an accompanying, massive and professionalized bureaucracy.

Post-secondary institutions were never designed to address social problems. They are not governments, but are increasingly called upon to provide the kinds of social welfare services that were once provided universally by the state. Colleges and universities do not want this job, nor are they equipped to do it well. Perhaps, instead of funnelling more resources into non-academic services on campuses, we ought to be asking about the social and political conditions that have led to the rise of the “welfare campus,” and whether there is a better way forward.

The human problems and needs that the welfare state was designed to recognize and address have not gone away. They’ve merely shifted in where and how they are expressed. The concentration of social problems and social services on post-secondary campuses reflects this shift, and it’s not working well. Post-secondary education is not a panacea, nor a substitute for the kinds of civic action and public-sector services we need for a healthy society.


[1] For a quick and easy explanation of the differences between welfarism and neoliberalism, and the political shift from the former to the latter, have a look at this Guardian article.