University culture and the student mental health crisis

Systemic factors need to be acknowledged and addressed

By Jon Parsons University Relations

Something that is sorely missing in discussions of mental health and wellness on university campuses is an acknowledgement of the ways that university culture itself contributes to mental illness.

According to Dr. Maureen Drysdale, a professor of psychology at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor with the School of Public Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo, schools can inadvertently foster an environment that negatively impacts mental health.

"The university experience can at times be highly competitive," Drysdale says. "Students may feel they do not measure up, and then also may feel it is not possible to seek help safely and efficiently. Universities try their best to provide resources or supports, but this doesn’t always hit the mark."

Toxic positivity

One aspect of university culture that Drysdale points out is toxic positivity. The competitive academic environment can place enormous pressure on students to appear happy and effortlessly engaged all the time, regardless of any mental health struggles they are experiencing.

"Everyone’s going around with a smile, acting happy," Drysdale says. "But that happiness can easily become toxic positivity, where students feel like they always have to be on. But underneath they’re just struggling, and they’re reluctant to open up."

Toxic positivity can also, paradoxically, be reinforced by the promotion of wellness. Sometimes the promotion of mental health and wellness puts the onus on individuals to deal with things they have little control over, which can lead to a lot of self-blame and self-criticisms.

Hustle culture

Another aspect of university culture that Drysdale discusses as impacting student mental health is hustle culture. It can seem to students that it is not enough to simply get good grades, but that they must also launch entrepreneurial ventures, win big awards and constantly work to stand out.

"Students can feel like they always need to be productive," Drysdale continues. "To get the best jobs, that CV or resume has to look near perfect, so there is a lot of pressure to always be doing more."

At some schools, hustle culture is also highly competitive when it comes to work terms or rankings within programs, and so students can feel they are in a situation where they work against one another, rather than being part of a community.

Shifting culture and building peer support

Asked what might be done to help address the student mental health crisis, Drysdale says there needs to be a shift in academic culture. She acknowledges that can be a difficult task for universities, even as there is a genuine desire on the part of administrations to make things better.

"What we need is a culture where it’s okay to show your true self," she says. "A lot of the stress is built up from the fact that students can’t appear imperfect or let down their guard. When we let down our guard, we look vulnerable. And if we look vulnerable, then maybe we don’t look happy and perfect all the time, and we question our right to be here. That’s a tough thing, but we need a university culture where it’s okay to be vulnerable and make mistakes."

Drysdale also emphasizes the importance of peer support and sense of belonging as fundamental to any shift in academic culture, which she is working to build through her research and teaching. Drysdale runs the Well-Link Lab , housed at St. Jerome’s University, which is actively creating peer support capacity and wellness programs, along with researching student mental health.