Mental health is one of the most important issues facing youth and society at large. If universities are not rallying everyone from every corner of their campus to solve this problem, they are ignoring the canary in the coal mine, at their peril. They will also not be helping to solve the issues of critical importance to their communities and their country, at their peril. Children and youth are our truth-tellers, whether or not we are listening, as the climate crisis demonstrates. Rates of psychological distress, anxiety, depression, suicidal behaviours are rising, as we watch and wait, in our children and youth. As biologist E.O. Wilson said, “Let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings.” Is that what we are waiting for?
According to the World Health Organization, mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. It is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.”
Youth mental health and illness-care providers and researchers are passionate; however, the supply and resources do not meet the demand, and many are inspired but tired. The mental health system for children and youth, including emerging adults and postsecondary students, languishes in the shadows, feeding on the scraps. Severe and persistent mental illness and substance use disorders threaten the lives, health and mental health not only of sufferers, but of their families and friends.
Let’s return to the WHO definition again and consider: what else can interfere with human potential, finding productive and fruitful work, and making a contribution to a community or society? Suddenly, it is clear that mental health extends well beyond mental illness. It is then impossible to ignore poverty, child maltreatment and adverse childhood experiences, which have potentially lifelong and costly consequences, particularly given the many years remaining in the life of a child. It is then impossible to ignore trauma, experienced at any age, including at its peak in emerging adulthood (18 to 25 years of age). It is then impossible to ignore oppression, in its many forms. It is even, then, impossible to ignore the effects of global warming on mental health. And, it should then be impossible to ignore the growing evidence that, while child and youth suicide remains rare, suicide rates have been growing significantly since about 2000.
We then come to the part of the WHO definition that talks about “normal stresses.” What are normal stresses in our university communities and society right now? Is it normal to compare ourselves to others, in our looks or our lives, constantly and obsessively? Is it normal to start getting stressed about postsecondary education in primary school? Is it normal to be deprived of a second chance if you make a mistake, because it was captured online somewhere? Is it normal to pressure our children into pursuing a degree or field of work that they didn’t choose? Is it normal to be sitting all day or tied to a device, which constantly leashes us to our work or school? Is it normal to expect to work three jobs on contract, with no benefits or safety net? Is it normal that our children don’t get outside enough to play and we are stuck in our cars? If this is normal, perhaps “normal” is part of the problem.
Knowledge is part of the solution to mental health problems, and not just in the fields we might think. We need the humanities to tell stories and remind us of our history, and to communicate in different ways as we seek to understand ourselves and one another. We need engineering and computer science, to realize the promise of artificial intelligence, and to design and build structures and systems with mental health in mind. We need social sciences, to study and question the society that we live in and our relationships to one another, and to find local and systemic solutions that benefit mental health. We need business, to discover, promote and communicate good ideas, solutions and services that enrich mental health and well-being, particularly at work, where we spend most of our lives. We need science, to understand the natural world and our bodies, and to find out what works and doesn’t work to promote mental health. We need the health sciences, the human and animal kind, to determine what helps and hurts our health.
Education is one of the answers to the mental health problems facing youth and us all. It predicts health and mental health. Education saves and improves lives, particularly when our most vulnerable can access and complete it. Education and mental health are powerful, synergistic forces when harnessed. Educating communities of people, in the form of gatekeeper training, may even prevent suicide. If universities cannot figure out how to harness knowledge to protect our children and youth, who will?
However, as Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Unless we can be empathic, compassionate and kind, we are lost in a dark forest. We need the administrative assistant or TA who notices and inquires when someone looks blue. We need the coffee shop employee who brightens everyone’s day with her encouraging words. We need the manager or professor who builds a culture of caring for their staff or students. We need the residence or facilities manager who notices when someone has been in their room or apartment for days on end. We need the nurse who listens and finds a way to help, filling in the gaps in care and services. We need to look out for each other, or we are wandering without a map or a compass.
Perhaps the mental health of our youth is a thermometer of society’s health. Like global warming, the temperature is going up. If we are not working to cool things down and prevent these growing problems, we are contributing to them. If we cannot improve the size and strength of our community safety nets, using both our heads and our hearts, it seems likely we will fail. Every person on a university campus has a role to play. What can you do?
Catharine Munn is associate clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University, as well as lead psychiatrist in the student wellness centre.