Beyond “Squeezable Stress Stars”: Mental Health on University Campuses (Guest Post)*

Guest Post


Jay T. Dolmage 

In Academic Ableism, I wrote about the connections between historically eugenic programs on college and university campuses—programs that focused on “hygiene”—and the current fad of “campus wellness.” We can draw a (rather straight) line from eugenic mental hygiene programs and physical fitness tests, to their existence as promotional programs, to family-life education programs, and on to wellness programs. At present, such programs off-load the responsibility for “wellness” onto individual students (and teachers): Eat better. Exercise more. Sleep well. (Maybe even wear this watch to track all this.) These programs often synch with “mental health awareness” on campuses—the programs that often refuse to address mental illness as a systemic issue, as something caused by higher education’s biases and regimes.

What these programs also do not even attempt to address is structural ableism and the educational construction of disability. They tend to be placed where psychologists can gather large amounts of data from a captive population—which is why so many wellness programs are helmed by psychologists or run out of psychology departments. Furthermore, the euphemism “wellness” works rhetorically to demand that we do not discuss disability, especially mental illness/mental disability/madness. We now have a growing industry of professionals working to minimize and hide disability on campuses. But the idea of wellness has also had an invasive effect, working its way into all aspects of university life.

The most recent evidence of this trend was a “wellness agreement” that a Canadian student had to sign. A Mount Saint Vincent University student was forced to sign an agreement “forbidding him to tell other students in residence that he was feeling suicidal” (Silva). The exact language of the agreement stated that the student “will not discuss or engage in conversations with residence students regarding personal issues, namely the student’s self-destructive thoughts” (Silva). The penalty for breaking this contract would have been expulsion from residence.

A university-wide program, harnessing the communications and PR power of the school, can be a particularly powerful, authoritative, legitimizing structure for controlling discourse around mental illness and disability. In the worst-case scenario, the focus on wellness might provide the rhetorical conditions in which eugenic ideas about who is and is not “fit” for college can germinate and grow.

As Catherine Gidney’s book Tending the Student Body points out, “by the 1930s and ‘40s, many universities provided some type of health service, and required physical examination and physical training…[E]ducators had come to perceive bodily health to be a crucial component in the role of the university in shaping students’ character….In other words, character would become writ on the body” (15, 76). Gidney goes on to note that “anxieties about women’s ability to combine intense study with good health in general, and reproductive health in particular [was] prominent within Canadian universities” (16). And, “in the late nineteenth century, some American universities, particularly elite ones, instituted compulsory medical examinations as part of their admission process in order to eliminate the unfit” (23). Unsurprisingly, “in obtaining funding for health services, physicians and administrators also relied on the help of faculty whose research intersected with aspects of the student physical examinations….Physicians and scientists, and even the occasional entrepreneur, quickly identified such programs as potential sources of captive research subjects. The provision of health services in the interests of students thus blurred with the use of students as research subjects” (32).

These programs are no longer explicitly mandatory, unless you are forced to sign an agreement. Yet, physicians and scientists on your campus likely study student wellness and publish on wellness without ever asking for student consent. Consider that all students at Oral Roberts University are required to wear Fitbit watches to track their weight, sleep, and exercise, as well as that many university employees can earn insurance discounts by submitting to wellness checks, using wellness apps, or wearing smart watches to track themselves. In short, “wellness” is a theme that pervades the university through awareness days, exercise-a-thons, special yoga classes, the use of university-wide health statistics by researchers, and so on. In the sickness model, we are unsure of exactly to what degree the university might be disabling, but the blame and the impact almost always falls on individuals to shoulder. In the wellness model, we are sure we should all be physically improving on campus, not talking about disability, and the burden is on the individual student to never be unwell.

At my own university in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, I’ve seen a lot of positive press lately for the “mental health first-aid kits” that all incoming University of Waterloo students will get this Fall. An article about them is here. I want to suggest that these “first-aid kits” are a way for the University’s administration to avoid doing anything useful or tangible to alleviate stress and anxiety, as well as another way to simultaneously infantilize students and download the responsibility for systemic stress and anxiety onto them. For a much better, more in-depth critique of mental health “first-aid,” I suggest everyone read Sera Davidow’s article on the trend.

(As an aside, another issue to consider concerns the labor used to put these kits together. An element of the positive press given to the initiative has been the idea that their assembly created work for people with disabilities. But, what kind of work is this assembly? And was it actually compensated with reasonable wages? Or was this another way to create the idea of charity, using disabled people as a fulcrum for the PR of the University?)

I feel compelled to convey my criticism of Waterloo’s kits because I firmly believe that there are REAL THINGS that the University could do, and should do, to alleviate stress and anxiety. Instead, the University will continue to nurture a culture that, in my view, more than any other Ontario university, creates this toxic environment. The first-aid kits are part-and-parcel of Waterloo’s big campus-wide initiative around “mental health,” following a year-after-year crisis with student suicide and a huge outcry from students. The kits get at the spirit of this response: change nothing meaningful. Make it seem like students need to change, or cope. Here’s a stress toy. At no point has anyone at Waterloo communicated to professors or administrators that they might be part of the problem, that they might be the problem, and that there are things they themselves can do to change.

Although my remarks in this post are directed specifically at my own university, readers and listeners of the post should consider whether the remarks reflect the policies and practices of their own university or college.

First, let’s start with orientation, during which these kits will be distributed. Waterloo students PAY FOR ORIENTATION. They pay for it! What a terrible first message to send! We want you here, we want to prepare you for what it will be like, we want you to be successful, oh and we also want you to pay for it. Orientation “week” is also the FIRST WEEK OF CLASSES. There are really only two days of orientation before the first day of classes. That’s not a week. That’s sending the wrong message. When you hand out these kits as part of this initiation experience, you are not saying “we care about your health.” You are saying: “buckle up.”

A long time ago, schools all across Canada realized that a Fall Break was a way to help students—a chance to dig out if they were already behind, catch up, a chance to sleep and take a breath. Waterloo’s Fall Break is instead a pilot project. It’s also JUST TWO DAYS. Students are urged to “take time for personal wellness (e.g. catch up on sleep, exercise) to prepare for the rest of the term” on these TWO DAYS. Wilfrid Laurier University, down the street, they have a full week. Maybe that’s because they understand what the purpose of such a break would be? Waterloo has been open to extending the Fall Break, but only if they could steal back orientation days of which, as I mentioned above, there are only two days to steal.

As I said above, at no point has anyone at Waterloo communicated to professors or administrators that they might be part of the problem and that there are things they can do to change the current state of affairs. I think, however, that both Orientation and the Fall Break were tangible things that the University could have changed.

For my own part, I plan to change my teaching this Fall, starting with these seven rudimentary things. I hope that readers and listeners of this blog will think seriously about ways to add to the list or adapt it to their own institutional environments:

  1. I will travel with all of my students to my office in the first week, so that they know exactly where it is. I will have a statement on my syllabus that explains what office hours are and tells them that successful students come to office hours, that it is not a failure to come to see me and that, in fact, the opposite is true.
  2. I will cancel a class within the first two weeks to have one-on-one conferences with each student. It’s worth it.
  3. This semester, I will teach, for the first time, a class that requires testing. All tests and exams that I give will be take-home tests and exams with one-week time-limits.
  4. I will put a basic-needs statement on my syllabus, as identified and discussed here.
  5. I will provide a variety of ways to satisfy participation and attendance requirements in my classes. Students won’t be penalized if they are sick or miss classes; instead, they will get the chance to learn and participate in a different way.
  6. I won’t penalize students who do not feel comfortable speaking up in front of the entire class, all the time; instead, I will give them other ways to be valued and take part.
  7. I will find out when my students have exams and deadlines for other classes and will re-arrange my own dates because there is no reason not to do so.

I encourage other university and college instructors to think seriously about how they can remove from students the burdens of wellness campaigns that administrations wish to download on them.

*This post originally appeared on Discrimination and Disadvantage in August 2018.

Follow BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on Twitter @biopoliticalph

3 Responses

  1. Nadhir Nasir

    The same situation also happens in universities in my own country where mental health is not viewed as a systemic issue. Instead, psychological, wellness and even social interventions put the ‘blame’ and ‘problem’ on the individuals.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.