Sunday, March 18, 2018

On UW's Mental Health Recommendations

After another suicide on the campus of the University of Waterloo, the university compiled 36 recommendations to try to alleviate the mental health crisis and held (and taped) a forum as well. It really says something about our lives that one of the recommendations is about the process of communicating suicides to students. At my school board, when I was a union rep, we had long conversations on this same topic. Suicide is now common enough to elicit developing a standard operating procedure for WHEN it happens.

We are clearly in the midst of a profound mental health crisis everywhere, not just in the universities. But because we're still on shaky ground trying to determine the cause of the problem, it's so hard to find the best solution. I had a good discussion with my class about Johann Hari's Lost Connections, and they were quite defensive at the suggestion that anxiety and depression are anything but biological conditions. People with these conditions are "actually sick," they insisted. Of course they are. But we can be sick without the cause of the illness being an inborn chemical imbalance. Clearly we can get lung cancer from living in a city where we swim though polluted air on our daily commute. So, like particulates physically affect our lungs, loneliness, trauma, ongoing stress, a lack of control over our environment, losing hope for the future, and perfectionism physically affect our brains. The effects can be seen in an MRI. It's no less real and no less an externally imposed condition in our brains than pollution is in our bodies.

If it's the case that mental illness is entirely a hormonal imbalance, then let's make universal pharmacare a reality and call it a day. BUT, if the condition is significantly caused by our environment and attitude towards the world, then we have some work to do to change it. And it's a much different kind of work than taking meds. So what should the universities do, and by extensions, the high schools? It's not just the schools that have to change, of course; it's our entire culture. This will be difficult, but, I believe, entirely possible. (I also believe that about reeling in climate change, though. We have to have at least an illusion of hope.)

While I appreciate the time and effort that's going in to this issue, and the warmth and compassion the panel demonstrated during the forum, UW still seems somewhat unclear about the specifics of their direction. I want to address a couple concerns I have with a few of their recommendations before I look more deeply at some of the keepers. I'm just trying to figure it all out here. Who knows, really.


The news around UW is all about increasing the number of mental health professionals on campus. I completely agree that this is necessary, and I'd like to see some in the high schools and in the city and province as well. That people suffering from extreme anxiety have to wait on a six month waiting list for help in the region means it's not enough just for UW to do more. There are not enough trained professionals available to help with mild to disabling mental health issues. This has been a problem in the region for years, and adding more money to one university isn't going to solve it. But, I guess, at least we're all talking about it. Again.

At what point do we stop congratulating ourselves about being willing to discuss it and actually take more significant measures to deal with it?

Some students at the forum questioned the size of the staff increase. UW is already acting on their proposed shift from a 1:1300 counsellor-to-student ration to a 1:1000 ratio. So, if 18.5% of the population has a mental illness, then that's one mental health professional for every 185 potential patients. That will give them about 13 minutes of time each per week. However, on top of that increase, they're hoping other staff members will take on voluntary training to help students. Depending on the professor's level of interest in the training and emotional stability, that could be amazing or horrifying for the students.

I agree that every educational institution should have a staff equipped with mental health training, taught by people well versed in the research rather then by well-meaning colleagues who might have read a synopsis of a study without sufficient background to really understand it thoroughly. And it can't be akin to our WHIMIS training where we mark papers waiting to advance from video to video before we answer a simple quiz. Nobody should be working exclusively with youth or young adults without some understanding of basic psychology and the capacity for active listening.

But another concern about faculty acting as therapists is that, while it would be ideal for people to find a trusted in ear in peers and profs, it's also asking instructors to take on an additional role that could add hours to their day without compensation. From a community point of view, it's lovely, but from a labour rights perspective, it's questionable. Will profs end up turning away people with specific questions about their course because they're in the middle of counselling a student with a mental health issue? Teacher training might help to diminish the number in need if professors have additional time to counsel on mental health issues on top of their typically limited office hours. A few minutes of listening to concerns here and there can do wonders, but part of the training must include how to make sure profs can set boundaries around their compassion.

At the forum, the president also raised other future-oriented options: "Can we use technology? Can we use A.I.?" It's not an unreasonable idea. As discussed in HyperNormalisation, that was done back in 1966:
"As a joke, Joseph Weizenbaum created a computer psychotherapist that responds like Carl Rogers (by just reflecting back whatever we say) in order to parody the hopeless attempts at AI. But people found talking with Eliza helpful - even people that knew how it worked. It makes us happy and secure to have ourselves reflected back at us."
Weizenbaum tried it on his secretary, and she was so engrossed with the therapy that she asked to be left alone with the program. Training in basic active listening within clearly defined boundaries and offering some empathy for people's situations can go a long way, provided it doesn't take people away from the crux of their jobs.

A student also raised the issue of culture and language as barriers to getting the kind of help that's offered. Since the university establishes itself as international, it also needs international services in a variety of languages and with a clear appreciation of cultural diversity. That's something that requires consideration everywhere.


Many of the ideas the university recommends are around accommodations (easier access of necessary forms, extra time on exams and assignments, fewer assignments, exam deferrals, reducing stress around co-op, etc.) and providing a system of recourse if any accommodation is refused or "violated" in any way.

Stress is a factor in mental illness, BUT are we absolutely sure that accommodating requests for extra time is what helps people who are anxious or depressed? Are we absolutely sure that shifting the boundaries to give more and more time for fewer and fewer assignments works better than having firm boundaries and challenging students to meet them?

The therapies of CBT, DBT, and REBT don't counsel patients to make sure the goalposts can be moved if they run into problems. Avoiding the tasks at hand can increase anxiety, so it doesn't make sense to eliminate or prolong the tasks. If students are terrified to do a presentation, telling them their accommodation excludes that requirement will only make their anxiety around it worse. The therapies that have been found most effective with anxiety don't counsel handling people with kid gloves because that can just reinforce their idea that they're in need of extra protection and that they can't do it. It feels good in the short term to be off the hook, but it just makes it worse in the long term. We want to help kids be the best they can be in life, not just for the time they're in our classroom. Instead, these therapies encourage people to slowly deal with anxiety around events through repeated attempts at each facet of achieving a goal until they can actually hit that goal with significantly less fear. People need to be exposed to anything triggering that's not actually harmful, not be protected from it.

But could it be the case that we ask too much of our students? Having taught over twenty years, I have binders to corroborate the growing sense that my expectations have been dramatically reduced over the decades, a result of giving in to complaints about work load a little bit at a time, year after year. It feels like no matter how little we give people to do, and how much we help them do it, it always feels like a bit too much on the receiving end of the tasks. But I think it's the corollary of our experiences with time, money, and counter space. No matter how much we have, we always feel like we're terribly squeezed and just need a little bit more. We always feel like we have too much work to do, but it's often a matter of perception rather than reality. No matter how much work we have, we will spread it out over the allotted time and fill in the gaps with fruitless activities and then feel overwhelmed as our deadlines approach. The amount of work isn't the problem, it's the ability to manage time where we all falter. The difference now is the greater number of ways we can ignore our work, but that's just one more challenge to overcome. Or maybe barring social media on campus could be a necessary accommodation to truly help students achieve their goal, but there'll be no closing that can of worms.

I could have 20 assessments or 3 in a term. With more, coming in at regular intervals, I get a more balanced idea of students' abilities, and students get significantly more practice with the skills and concepts. With fewer assessments, students might have one bad week that wipes out a third of their mark. And they'll still spread the work out so they end up feeling overwhelmed right before the due dates because we're really bad at getting the task done right after it's assigned instead of right before it's due. I harp on this one skill all term, offering all manner of rewards to get students to finish work early, but never get more than one or two takers. We see the same stress levels in teachers right before marks are due. When it comes to work that we can do outside the confines of our classroom, it's too easy to let it pile up for another day. What works for me, is everything at that 'one skill' link. I assign myself arbitrary due dates and convince myself I have to meet them or else, like marking must be done in 24 hours. And then it happens, and I have my weekends to myself. But most people talk themselves out of the work, and then they're left scrambling. I watch my own children get their time sucked up by procrastination, and I can't find a way to convince them of what works either. They're too stuck in avoidance.


The recommendations also include integrating curriculum focused on mental health. If this is suggesting students all learn more about mental health despite their field, then I'm not sure if talking about it will fix it or fixate on it. In a recent article, sociologist Frank Furedi says
"This proliferation of medicalised categories for children tells us far more about the inventive powers of the therapeutic industry than it does about childhood today. So schoolkids who are shy are offered the diagnosis of social phobia. Children who really hate going to school might have ‘school phobia’. Pupils worried about exams are diagnosed as suffering from ‘exam stress’. Everyone who has been a child or who understands children will know that they are often concerned about how they will perform in exams, of course; but what is different today is that this is rebranded in the therapeutic language of ‘exam stress’. The relationship between this new narrative of illness and its impact on young people is a dialectical one. The narrative doesn’t only frame the way children are expected to experience everyday problems – it also acts as an invitation to infirmity. Children who are socialised to see their experiences through the prism of mental health will internalise this narrative. Unlike children who went to school 30 or 40 years ago, today’s schoolchildren readily communicate their problems in a psychological vocabulary, using words like stress, trauma and depression to describe their feelings.
Young people will start to see the challenges that are integral to growing up as a source of psychological distress. Well-intentioned campaigners demanding more mental-health resources for schools and other places are, despite their best intentions, inviting children to feel ill. And this cultivation of vulnerability, of mythical illness, has serious implications for children who are genuinely ill. The medicalisation of childhood doesn’t only disorient young people in general – it also diverts precious resources away from children with serious psychological conditions by counting everyone as being in need of such assistance. What children need from adults is not a diagnosis but inspiration and leadership."

So there's that to consider as well. The exact wording of UW's recommendations suggests the school, "integrate curriculum focused on mental health . . . develop courses in ways that promote mental wellness." I'm not clear how physics and geography profs will develop their courses to promote mental wellness. It's a vague suggestion that could lead to some warped or haphazard implementation.

Wellness is becoming a marketed buzzword, and some students get overtly concerned with self-care to the detriment of their mental health in the long run. They set aside their weekends to relax despite having neglected their schoolwork during the week. It's become just another means of avoiding tasks.

But more importantly, what will the curriculum include? The university wants to, "Ensure a common definition of resiliency is used." It's handy to have a clear practice prescribed, one idea that we all agree on, but what is that idea? Leaving the details out means it's a document we can all easily support, but then it's also a document that isn't particularly useful beyond that. They're adopting the Okanagan Charter, a whole systems approach that will "create conditions for health . . . set priorities and build multilevel commitments to action," but it also doesn't speak to the specifics of those conditions or priorities. Insisting there's a desire to do the right thing without clarifying what the actual solutions are can placate the public without actually solving any problems. My fear is that this charter, and the UW recommendations, don't clearly establish what a good mental health approach actually looks like. It might be just vague rhetoric meant to appease the masses despite all their kind hopes of effecting change.


Recommendation #5 includes, "Confidentiality around communication of grades to students to ensure practices aren't promoting an unhealthy competitive environment (e.g. rankings)." Decreasing aspects of a competitive atmosphere would go far to help, but it would take more than just privacy around marks to do so, and I'm not sure that's the best place to start. It was only because of rankings that I felt like I wasn't a fraud for thinking I could get an honours philosophy degree. Rankings can tell us what we're good at and clarify our limitations, and abilities and limitations will always be relative to others; there's no getting around that.

However, certain aspects of competitiveness in our culture can affect mental health. There's a perfectionism that is becoming more prevalent, and it would be handy if we all repeated my mum's old advice like a mantra: "Don't worry about being the best, just always try to do your best." Don't be lazy about it, ever, and be persistent in working towards realistic goals, but do the best you can and hand it in, then go on with your life without any expectations of glory. Try to improve on your previous effort without any attention to the others. They're on their own paths that have nothing to do with you.

That attitude can't start in university. It's way too late then. It has to start in the home and be reinforced by educators and media everywhere. To be a success means to be kind, compassionate, and thoughtful, not to be ruthlessly demanding with others and with yourself. And it definitely doesn't mean making the most money possible or having the shiniest stuff.

But the focus on all competition as the villain is a bit off track. Competition can be healthy or harmful. It's not competition, per se, that's the problem, but perfectionism and the false dichotomy of winners and losers. Healthy competition raises spirits, but we have to be okay with congratulating the winners: to compete in order to find our own limitations rather than in order to disparage another group of people to build ourselves up. It's all a subtle attitude shift born of a slight yet substantial adjustment to our thoughts about ourselves and others.

The forum panel addressed this specifically, but not particularly well. When questioned about how industry-driven UW is, which sets students up for competition more than other schools, the panel explained that everything is competition, so we have to build resilience to ensure we're ready for whatever life throws at us. They hope getting rid of rankings will alleviate some undue stress, though.

While competition can be a healthy motivator, it's not the case that everything is necessarily a competition. Or, if it is, then that's a different problem. We can look at getting in to university or getting a job as a matter of being a good fit rather than a fight to the finish. And beyond the job interview, competition for rewards ends in many professions where meeting the expectations gets you a paycheque. And while building resilience is a very useful focus, it's not just about changing the students as the panel seemed to suggest. What I heard them suggesting is that we should have competition, but fix the kids so it doesn't bother them as much. But many studies point to the need for a change in the environment to enable resilience to be developed including offering opportunities for authentic involvement in the processes of the institution or place of employment.

Some studies point to conditions from early childhood or prenatal exposures as the key to resilience, but George Bonanno suggests it's all a matter perceiving events differently:
"One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal. It’s for this reason, Bonanno told me, that “stressful” or “traumatic” events in and of themselves don’t have much predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. “The prospective epidemiological data shows that exposure to potentially traumatic events does not predict later functioning,” he said. “It’s only predictive if there’s a negative response.” In other words, living through adversity, be it endemic to your environment or an acute negative event, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll suffer going forward. What matters is whether that adversity becomes traumatizing. The good news is that positive construal can be taught."
So, like Furedi cautioned, the way we talk about the world is changing the world.

WARNING: Because of its popularity, resilience is becoming a business, and personality inventories are being marketed widely as a cure all, but they're dubious at best. A survey won't save lives. I hope they don't waste their money in that direction. It's another tasks that lets us feel like we're doing something useful, but it's all for nought.

Adjusting our perspective on competition means we have to embrace our limitations, which is a profound paradigm shift for our times of extolling boundless potential. It's not to say we shouldn't try our best to overcome adversity because that's still a means to find our limits. We need to recognize that, for every one of us, there are things we can't do, and that's okay. Say it again: Be your best, not the best.


Back to Johann Hari's book: he suggests it can help to decrease the looming sense of competition in our lives by watching fewer ads. He starts with suggestions around banning billboards, but AdBlocker is more apt to decrease our exposure. Either way, I think he's on the right track with this. As Durkheim clarifies in On Suicide, suicide is chronic in the sphere of trade and industry. We are inundated with the next new thing, and, "Every disturbance of equilibrium, even though it achieved greater comfort and a heightening of general vitality, is an impulse to voluntary death" (246). Unlimited desires are insatiable and a source of misery, and, "To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness" (247-8). "From top to bottom of the ladder greed is aroused without knowing where to find ultimate foothold. Nothing can calm it since its goal is far beyond all it can attain" (256). According to Durkheim, and many philosophers through the ages, to be happy, we have to contain our aspirations:
"A thirst arises for novelties, unfamiliar pleasures, nameless sensations, all of which lose their savor once known. Henceforth one has no strength to endure the least reverse. The whole fever subsides and the sterility of all the tumult is apparent, and it is seen that all these new sensations in their infinite quantity cannot form a solid foundation of happiness to support on during days of trial. The wise man, knowing how to enjoy achieved results without having constantly to replace them with others, finds in them an attachment to life in the hour of difficulty. But the man who has always pinned all his hopes on the future and lived with his eyes fixed upon it, has nothing in the past as a comfort against the present's afflictions, for the past was nothing to him but a series of hastily experienced stages. . . . In societies where a man is subjected to a healthy discipline, he submits more readily to the blows of chance. The necessary effort for sustaining a little more discomfort costs him relatively little, since he is used to discomfort and constraint. But when every constraint is hateful in itself, how can closer constraint not seem intolerable? There is no tendency to resignation in the feverish impatience of men's lives. When there is no other aim but to outstrip constantly the point arrived at, how painful to be thrown back! (256-7).
Religion used to restrict material ambitions of the masses, but now that's largely ignored, and we live with the belief that we should be able to have anything we set our sights on - that phone or car or house or body (to exploit or to inhabit).

We know about the depression caused by seeing the perfect lives of our friends on social media. We didn't used to have an idealized version of others in our face as often. Comparing our situation with others is distressing. We have to ignore the path others are taking, but it can be a struggle when we carry them around in our pockets. We can be perfectly content with our life and having a great day until we see Sally's photos of the amazing thing she's doing right now. Similarly, monkeys are perfectly happy with a cucumber until one of them gets a grape.

So, we can criminalize grapes, or we can stop comparing ourselves to others. Luckily (or hopefully) we have the brain capacity to do the latter, but it does take an ongoing effort to ignore all the social signalling of success. There have always been wealthy elites, a class above us, but there hasn't always been the belief that we'll be part of it one day if only we keep working and dressing for success. That's a relatively new phenomenon.

We need parents and educators and the media to stop focussing on students making the most money possible to have the most stuff possible to impress all our friends and relatives. So long as we live in a country where poverty isn't a death sentence, we can survive. We have to shift the focus towards being good people whose value is in who they are instead of what they do. If just the universities do this, it will have a negligible effect. Worse, if they shift from insisting they're grads are best, they will appear to have given up on the capitalist dream. It has to be a full on cultural revolution.

And, individually, we have to stop focussing on people who are a bit better than us, and learn to focus instead on people who are worse off. And there are billions of people so much worse off than we are. It will help us feel better about our own situation, and it might also provoke us to help them.


One audience member at the forum suggested the root of the problem was that there's no sense of belonging at UW. He said, compared to other universities, the "campus is not alive," and he blamed co-op because it moves students around each term. "We can't create belonging in four months." I think it could be possible for coop to just have summer work terms in order to keep students in school for the typical eight months in a row, but I'm not sure that's entirely to blame for a lack of community.

UW's recommendations are on the right track with, "Developing a greater sense of belonging and community at Waterloo for all students," but I'm curious how that will be implemented. How do you make people feel connected to each other? Each year in my Challenge and Change class, when we start talking about prejudice and discrimination, I ask my class if our school is as wonderfully inclusive as we like to think it is. Is anyone left out? And they always say the same thing: About a third of our students are in the workplace stream, and few of the more academically inclined have anything to do with them or would be willing to talk to them at length. They claim they have nothing in common. The great bridge is sports, and where there is a non-academic interest, they mingle well, but outside of that is a marked disdain. Since the local vocational school was closed in favour of integration, we've tried many means to make everyone get along. But nothing has really made the school welcoming to everybody. All the spirit wear in the world won't change the phenomenon of in-group/out-group formation. They want to be winners, so they're not going to associate with what they perceive as losers. It's this bit from Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche:
"We’re losing something about community, about accepting people who are different. If we have a culture of winning, a culture of success, a culture of knowledge, those who have less knowledge are not winning. So we’re in a culture of huge divisions."
Lots has been studied on developing community, and I've written about it at length, and it seems we just need to work together for a common purpose that takes strenuous effort of everyone involved, like in Sherif's Robbers Cave experiment. I'm not sure how to manage that with the 1200 people in my school, though.

As soon as we assign people to groups, comparisons and then competition emerges between the groups. When I was in university, where we were so much more mature than in high school, the artsy-fartsies hated the biznobs, and we encamped in our surreptitiously established, yet clearly delineated, segregated areas of the cafeteria.

Belonging across the entire school might not be achievable, so belonging might come down to people finding their group and then feeling some sense of inclusion in smaller pieces rather than within the whole. Paradoxically perhaps, we foster more in-groups in hopes that everyone can find a place, tons of clubs and teams are create, which might be effectively except the people that need it most, often don't access them. And, if we promote the idea that everyone has a place, it can have the deleterious side effect of making people feel MORE like outsiders. The atmosphere of joining leaves the square pegs all the more outside looking in to this amazing place where everyone fits. Maybe we need to foster a 'be yourself; nobody's a perfect fit here; we're all a little weird, so if you don't fit, then you're just like us' kind of thing. So long, of course, it's clear that be yourself isn't interpreted as do or say anything that feels good to you. We all have to accept limits on our behaviour. Limits aren't the problem; provoking people to pretend to conform to unnecessary social norms - particularly a frenzy of socializing - is the issue at hand.

The UW panel discussed the reality that there can be undue stress caused from interactions between peers or between students and staff. He recognized the need to address that as necessary, but didn't present any options for preventing conflict. It can be stressful to be surrounded by people all day. In order to effectively connect, we need time and space to disconnect as well.


Individuals are just as happy in small group as in large - likely even happier. It's easy to build community by denigrating an opposing team, so, ironically, competition can actually foster a sense of inclusion and identity for individuals. It would be nice if entire institutions or nations or the planet felt a sense of belonging, but we can lose the parts when we focus on the whole.

Last year I had ongoing lunchtime conversations with a student who felt bullied because nobody wanted to eat lunch with him. I told him he can't demand that people be friends with him, and it's not bullying to say "no thanks" to offers to sit with people. It's just unfortunate he doesn't have friends. He could eat in my classroom, but that doesn't solve the problem at all. He wants people his age to like him. People are generally very kind to him, but that's different than being his friend.

There's evidence that finding a group where we connect helps depression and anxiety, absolutely:

BUT, there will always be students on the margins who can't break into the groups, no matter how many specific groups we make. They're different enough that they just can't find their people. We can absolutely admonish any teasing about difference, and we can encourage people to accept and celebrate difference, but we can't make people like it. We can try to make people more likeable, but fake it until you make it, in this case, fails miserably as people generate false friends who clearly don't know the real person they finally allowed at their lunch table. There are myriad coming of age movies that make this clear. Their solution is always to team up with that one other awkward kid, and then it all gets better. But that's just in the movies. In real life, often they despise one other.

If we can't make everyone be loved for who they really are, and we can't, then maybe we can work at making loneliness less taboo and far less shameful. I'm reminded of the scene in Lars and the Real Girl, where Dagmar, whom we respect and admire, declares her loneliness without a trace of embarrassment:

Maybe loneliness isn't something to be rescued from, but something to acknowledge as part of the human condition. We can't always feel a significant connection to others.
"If you don't know you're loved, then you have to prove that you are someone." ~ Jean Vanier in Love and Belonging
I'd call Vanier a leader in the field of belonging as he developed an organization full of people who don't easily fit elsewhere, but who are now sincerely loved. He says our problems is that we communicate a lot to show off our knowledge but without presence. We don't exist with each other enough, open to them and listening. He advocates a more christian sense of love for one another that's profoundly accepting and inclusive in a way we only give lip service to, and while I don't think we're ready to go to that level of caring yet, I think it's good to see what's possible out there.

Because another part of this dilemma brings us back to perfectionism. For some, they don't just want a moderate level of connectedness with random people; they're looking for total and profound understanding of our selves by another, and quickly and by chance. They want Montaigne's, "Because It was he; because it was I." And they also don't want to hang out with people who dip below their personal standards for friendship. Our standards might be set too high for some basic connections that could effectively stave off loneliness.


There was a time that education rose above the spheres of the workplace, but now it's part and parcel of the machinations of industry. People don't go to school to learn or be enlightened or to have their world view expanded by a breadth of theories and ideas; they go to become employable. I would love if the university recommended sweeping changes to the attitude towards education as a means to know thing that can give students ideas to spur them on to think about things. But it doesn't come up.

I'd like to see the province take off the cap for high school courses (34 credits) and encourage people to take as many courses as possible to thoroughly discover their strengths and weaknesses. Universities and colleges just look at the best six courses, so don't worry about failing the rest - but do try them. High school should be understood as the final opportunity to try and fail, over and over, for free, with many opportunities to do volunteer coop in a variety of fields. Then applying to university or college will have some clarity of purpose behind it.

But here's what the Ministry's website says about it:
"Over a decade ago, Ontario moved to four years of high school, but many students are still taking that additional fifth year, even after graduating. In 2010-11, over 20,000 students who graduated in four years returned for at least another semester. That's why we need to shift the culture in our schools and encourage students to graduate and move on to the next stage in their lives after four years."
It's telling that the only reason they give for why we need to shift the culture in schools is the fact that students are taking extra courses. It's as if they, the Ministry of Education, believe that taking extra courses and learning beyond what's required is implicitly wrong! The goal is not to develop a breadth of skills and knowledge; it's not for each student to explore the limits of their capabilities and find their own hidden interests and talents. It's clearly to get them out the door as quickly as possible. So we're sending them off to uni at 17 despite the many many signs that they're just not ready for that stage of life yet.

We coax them through with the prize of a fulfilling career. Except, according to Hari's research, most people hate their jobs. Education improves your chances of enjoying a lengthy and profitable work life, but not by much. Expectations around the workplace are out of control. Most people do not have a career that is empowering, capable of unleashing their stores of creativity, and emotionally gratifying. The expectation has to shift towards getting a job that pays the bills and then having a life outside work that's fulfilling. That build up of having amazing marks leading to amazing opportunities leads too many people into devastation once they realize it's not going to happen for them. And then the idea of working for minimum wage in an office is too far below the expectations we've created for them.

We don't have as much control over the type of job we get as much as we imagine. It's not the case that, if we follow all the right steps, we'll end up in the job we chose back in grade 10. But we can control what we do outside of a job provided our entertainment pursuits are affordable. But can we make ourselves enjoy a walk in the park? Do we know what we enjoy?

In the 1950s, D.W. Winnicott came up with the term "the good-enough mother" when he discovered that children actually benefit when their parents fail them in manageable ways. It's important to tend to your children, but, as they age, it's important to fail to attend to them too. But the term has taken on a slightly different connotation: That it's okay to be less than perfect in the most influential aspect of society was a relief after Freud depressed a generation of mothers with the notion that their children's foibles were all a product of poor upbringing. We should aim for excellence when we can, but not worry too much about it when we don't. We need to consider the good-enough student and the good-enough life. Instead of setting people up for failure by suggesting they should be getting high grades to get the rewards in life, can we teach them that doing their best work is what counts? Marks are just markers that help people see what their good at relative to a standard at each level, and they're useful to tell students what they might find interesting to pursue at greater depth in future. Just that.


The recommendations say little about our attitude towards education in general, and they also miss the effect of education-induced poverty on mental health. Today's NYTimes has an article on food insecurity on campuses. And it can't be the case that failing a course financially destroys a family. That's too big a burden to dump on a 17-year-old still struggling to find their place on campus. Hari's research shows a strong correlation between poverty and mental health, and it's an even greater effect when people have had then lost money. Decreasing mental health issues can be had with a decrease in a tuition more than a decrease in workload.

Many of my students over the recent years have expressed substantial worries about university life. Some complain that school doesn't teach them what they really need to know: how to do dishes or laundry or make meals or get a bank account. Some of them are terrified about going to university because they haven't master the basics of domestic life. These skills aren't always taught at home in our era of over-caring; they're too well taken care of to know how to manage when left to their own devices. There's a simple solution for this one: to prepare our children to do well in school, we need to make them do chores at home so they believe they can do them on their own when they leave.

We also need employment opportunities that aren't conditional on higher education. Not everyone can get a university degree, and there must be a respected place in society for all abilities. Nobody should be at school because they're terrified they won't be able to survive if they don't go.

And the last thing that's missing and needs to be discussed is that maybe we can't do anything timely to change the increase in suicides. Maybe this crisis is just embedded in our current culture, and it will be a long slow evolution in society to improve the rates, if they improve at all. Sometimes there's just nothing we can do to prevent a suicide. And it's entirely possible to change our environment, and then find we inadvertently created something else that adversely affects mental health. But there's no harm enacting much of what the Stoics suggested centuries ago: we need only change our perception of our world in order to change our reaction to it.

Something like that.


Maybe the increase is because the way we focus:
"This proliferation of medicalised categories for children tells us far more about the inventive powers of the therapeutic industry than it does about childhood today. So schoolkids who are shy are offered the diagnosis of social phobia. Children who really hate going to school might have ‘school phobia’. Pupils worried about exams are diagnosed as suffering from ‘exam stress’. Everyone who has been a child or who understands children will know that they are often concerned about how they will perform in exams, of course; but what is different today is that this is rebranded in the therapeutic language of ‘exam stress’. The relationship between this new narrative of illness and its impact on young people is a dialectical one. The narrative doesn’t only frame the way children are expected to experience everyday problems – it also acts as an invitation to infirmity. Children who are socialised to see their experiences through the prism of mental health will internalise this narrative. Unlike children who went to school 30 or 40 years ago, today’s schoolchildren readily communicate their problems in a psychological vocabulary, using words like stress, trauma and depression to describe their feelings."

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