The Best Way Out is Through: A Reflection

The university I attend is notorious for having an incredibly difficult second year. It is the year that most people consider dropping out of their programs, dropping out of university, and some even consider giving up on life entirely. It feels as if most of my memories are with friends at library tables, cramming for the next midterm (we wrote at least one every weekend for about six weeks straight in Term 2), finishing up that last assignment, or just catching up on all of the lectures we had to put aside to study for the last midterm.

I spent a lot of time at the library. I remember hearing, “This course is going to kill me,” and “I’d rather kill myself than write this exam,” often. It was common, just a part of the university student vernacular. It wasn’t serious, it was just an expression of frustration. It didn’t mean anything. No one was actually going to do it.

Except it wasn’t just an offhanded joke, for some. I remember actively seeking a reason to keep going on multiple occasions, and debating seeking help from a counsellor, or a psychologist. But the thoughts were so normalized. Everyone has them. Everyone expressed them. It’s not that bad.

School on its own is horrid.

Example 1 (Western): Second Year Science midterm exams for Physiology, Pharmacology, Genetics, and Organic Chemistry were scheduled all on the same day. Those who had three or more of those courses had the option to move one/two. But the makeup dates were within the next week, where the regular Cell Biology and Microbiology midterm exams were.

Example 2 (Rotman): Second Year Business students had three of their midterm examinations scheduled on the same day, and although they could have moved one, they opted to take them all over writing an objectively harder midterm examination less than a week later.

Example 3 (McMaster): Organic Chemistry and Genetics (mandatory courses for Science Students) midterm exams were scheduled on the same day.

Example 4 (Western): Second Year Science Final Exams were scheduled with Organic Chemistry, Genetics, and Statistics on consecutive days (the three of these being mandatory courses for many students). Physiology, a popular elective, was a day before Organic Chemistry.

But alongside school, some students must balance jobs, extracurricular activities, and we often underestimate how difficult it is to eat, sleep, and stay healthy overall in this toxic environment that rewards those who can function on the least food and rest.

We pat the backs of our friends who tell us of breakdowns in library cubicles; we’ve been there, it’s just a part of student life. Crying is commonplace; you grab a tissue, wipe your eyes, and get back to studying.

We constantly quote the “1 in 5 students will suffer from mental health issues at some point in their university years” statistic and never stop to think about what it really means. We strive to improve the university support services without stopping to consider why the services are inadequate — I personally believe that they are run fairly well but simply lack in numbers to support the overwhelming number of students who require them. Because Student Life™ propagates poor mental health.

And the rhetoric on campuses about mental health resources almost always revolves around how few resources we have, and how we need to improve that for students. But this is also harmful. We constantly spout criticism of the lack of resources; we demand change, but change comes about slowly. In the meantime, people who don’t “have it as bad as someone else might” start thinking, “I shouldn’t use up these limited resources because people who have it worse than me need it more than I do.” I know this mindset is common — I’m speaking out of personal experience, both thoughts I’ve had and heard from friends I’ve encouraged to seek help.

This discourse, albeit necessary, causes people who need the help, the people who are quite literally predisposed by their mental health issues to feeling like a burden, to feel like they are a burden on the system. They don’t need it that much, because it isn’t that bad, and other people need it way more, so they shouldn’t go at all — so as to not use up those resources.

Because everyone hates school. Everyone wants to die because of exams. Everyone jokes about jumping out of the window because it would be better than continuing to study. Everyone jokes about maybe getting hit by a car and not having to write that midterm tomorrow. I had one guy tell me that being on anti-depressants is “no big deal because basically everyone is on them at some point.”

University is much harder than we give the average student credit for. Second year nearly killed me. It was overwhelming, I felt small, I felt as if the goals I had set for myself out of high school were too lofty, that I was incapable of achieving them. I felt like I wouldn’t make it through.

But I had people to carry me through (literally). And although I’m grateful, I think it’s sad that I look back and know that I wouldn’t have made it out alone. That I wasn’t capable of reminding myself that I could do it, I needed someone else to tell me.

I made it through. Not everyone does, though. And although we need to improve the mental health resources for students on campus, maybe we should stop and consider the fact that the epidemic plaguing campuses requires prevention programs rather than treatment. 

Going forward, I feel better prepared to handle my third and fourth years — I am told that it will be easier. I know the professional school I hope to attend will not be any easier, but having gotten through the past year, I honestly feel like I can do anything.

I hope the Western Students who did not make it through the year, who were plagued by mental illness to the point where it took their lives, rest in peace. My heart goes out to their families, who are going through the unimaginable.

I know it’s hard. All I can say is, reach out, and talk to people. Follow up on stupid jokes. Check in on your loved ones, during exam season, during summertime. We’re here for each other. We’re all in this, and we’ll make it out, together. Because the best way out is through.

Tomorrow will be better. Next year, will be better. It always gets better.

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