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Blog post

3 ways to improve academic mental health in the post-pandemic university

May 27, 2021
By Fanny Gravel-Patry

Illustration by Sandrine Corbeil

When the first lockdown started in March 2020, my anxiety was at an all-time high. Every time I tried to sit down and work, all I could see was a blurry screen. While I was happy if I made it through the day without a panic attack, my colleagues were getting on with their lives – publishing articles, achieving milestones in their career, and commenting every moment of it on social media. But as the pandemic progressed, what I felt was an isolated feeling turned out to be more common than I thought as students started to be more vocal about academia's overwork culture and the strain it was putting on our collective mental health. More than ever before, we felt the need to slow down and question the high levels of productivity we had been expected to maintain.

If you are a student, you may probably have already undertaken too many projects or accepted to do unpaid work "because it is good for your C.V." And if you live with a mental illness or disability, you may have felt stigmatized for not being able to meet these standards.

What is next?

But as Canadian universities are planning to reopen, I worry that these conversations may lose their momentum and I cannot help but wonder: What is next? While the pandemic made it more "acceptable" for students to speak about their struggles with productivity and mental health, we have yet to make concrete changes to improve students’ mental health. In this blog post, I introduce 3 ways to improve academic mental health as we move forward.

1. Accommodation

Better student mental health first and foremost means better access to mental health resources and accommodations. As of now, students who experience mental illness or mental health problems during the academic year are required to show proof of medical diagnosis in order to receive accommodation from the university. Even though some instructors and professors are more lenient than others – I, myself, am lucky to have a very supportive supervisor –, it remains difficult for a student who experiences psychological impairment to receive accommodation if they do not have a diagnosis. This protocol excludes many experiences that are not easily diagnosable such as many forms of trauma, PTSD, and personality disorders, as well as those mental health problems for which there are no diagnosis such as racism or sexual violence induced traumas. It also lacks consideration for the fact that many students do not have the cultural knowledge or financial resources necessary to seek appropriate care.

Illustration by Sandrine Corbeil

2. Education and Destigmatization

Even though many universities already provide some form of free mental health care for students, it remains limited to a number of sessions and many students do not know where to turn once their therapy is over. Universities also provide workshops on how to cultivate a good mental health as well as help lines that students can contact if they feel the need to. While these resources are helpful, I believe students need to be further educated on what mental illnesses and mental health problems are, not so that they can try to avoid them or try to attain an idealized form of mental well-being, but so that they can better assess when they need help and where to find it. Educating students on mental health would better equip them to identify the resources they need, and it would also participate in destigmatising mental health problems within the student and faculty population. That being said, access to mental health resources cannot be achieved without a student health care plan that covers therapy. All the efforts to educate students will be lost if we cannot access the help. As of now, if we want to seek therapy outside the university, our insurance does not cover it.

3. Cultural Transformation

Accessibility, education, and destigmatization, however, cannot happen without cultural changes and vice versa. When my anxiety flared up during the pandemic, I was once again confronted with the fact that people like me do not fit in the work culture of academia because our productivity doesn’t function in linear ways. You do not choose when you will have an anxiety episode and what is going to be the trigger. Similar to people with chronic pain, we may experience moments of debility that refrain us from working in a standardized pace.

The pressure that education puts on students can also create new or additional traumas and mental health problems. What many students identify as “imposter syndrome” can be linked back to historical practices such as standardized testing and bullying that undermine the potential of students based on their race, class, and gender, and their overall ability to perform within an educational setting. This pressure can lead to performance anxiety, high levels of stress, as well as depression and burnout.

One thing the pandemic did right for academia is bring awareness to the toxicity of overwork culture, the impact on student mental health, and the need for better mental health care resources. We still have a long way to go but the fact that I am able to share my experience is a sign that the transformation is already under way.

About the author

Photo of Fanny Gravel-Patry

Fanny Gravel-Patry (she/her) is a PhD candidate and lecturer in the communication studies department at Concordia University. She holds a BA (2012) and MA (2015) in Art History from Université de Montréal. She studies mental illness, media practices of care, and digital visual culture.

Her dissertation looks at the Instagram practices of women living with mental illness and their use of the app as a tool for care. Her work was recently published by Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal in a special issue on digital images. In addition to her research, Fanny has been the communications officer of the Communication Doctoral Student Association since 2019 and she is an active member of the Feminist Media Studio. Her doctoral research is supported by Fonds de Recherche du Québec - Société et Culture (FRQSC) and Concordia University.

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