Universities are designed as spaces where minds are nurtured—where expertise develops and new knowledge is generated. However, not all is well within the walls of the academy. Under academic, financial, and social pressures, faculty and students are more frequently reporting poor mental health.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, concern had been growing around mental health struggles at Ontario’s universities. Workload for tenured faculty and academic librarians was rising, contract faculty were working term-to-term without any guarantee of continued employment, and students were stringing together multiple jobs in efforts to afford the highest tuition fees in Canada. Stress and anxiety were on the rise and taking a toll.
Enter a global health pandemic. Suddenly, faculty were scrambling to move their courses online and adapting to the isolation of remote work. Meanwhile, students were also having to pivot online and many had to take on additional debt because the pandemic left them without any supplementary employment to help pay the bills.
On top of this were overarching concerns about physical health and safety. Suddenly, basic errands meant risking exposure to the virus. Social support systems broke down and university services struggled to meet the new challenges introduced by the pandemic. Confined and cut off, academic staff and students have struggled to care for themselves and carry on with their academic work, in addition to caring for family and friends.
In this issue of Academic Matters, we explore the mental health dilemma in the academy. In a space that is supposed to cultivate knowledge and nourish the mind, what does it mean that the mental health of faculty, staff, and students has reached a crisis point? How do we address the causes of poor mental health in our university communities?
Contributing to this issue are Ivy Bourgeault, Janet Mantler, and Nicole Power, whose work has examined the relationship among mental health, leaves of absence, and return to work for university faculty. With academics increasingly feeling that they must choose between productivity and their own mental health, the authors argue that individualized responses are inadequate and that a more substantial overhaul of academia’s neoliberal structure is required.
Michael Butler examines students’ struggles with mental health and identifies some of the existing conditions that have contributed to their stress and anxiety. The data is alarming, but, as Michael details, there are numerous initiatives postsecondary institutions can take to address the systemic causes of poor student mental health and to provide better services and supports.
Jesmen Mendoza considers the important role faculty play in supporting students. While most faculty are not trained—and should not be expected—to diagnose or guide students through periods of poor mental health, sometimes they are the first people students turn to for help and Mendoza provides guidance about how faculty can help struggling students by showing compassion and pointing them to existing campus supports.
Miriam Edelson explores how faculty associations and unions defend their members from both physical and psychological hazards. As poor mental health has become a greater concern in workplaces everywhere, unions have been evolving their approaches to supporting their members’ interests and advancing new and better mental health protections in collective agreements.
Rounding out our focus on mental health, Ameil Joseph and Shaila Kumbhare curate a selection of resources from A Way Through, a McMaster University project they designed to support Canadians in navigating the numerous online resources addressing grief in the time of COVID-19.
Finally, we are pleased to republish the first story resulting from the OCUFA Fellowship in Higher Education Journalism. Nicholas Hune-Brown spent two years investigating the troubling yet growing international student recruitment industry. His article paints a fascinating, revealing, and concerning picture of the international student recruitment industry.
Thanks to this issue’s authors for their contributions. Mental health is a challenging subject, but we are in a moment where identifying the causes of poor mental health and exploring remedies is more important than ever. For the academy to function as intended, it must be a space that nurtures healthy minds.
Thanks for reading.