New spectre on the campus: STUDENT CRACKUPS
IT’S DOUBTFUL if even one of the two hundred thousand students now in Canadian universities and colleges really believed, when he first enrolled, that he was about to enter that mythical world so dear to the hearts of musical-comedy writers. You know the world I mean. It’s the place where carefree students shut out all hard work and serious worry and fill their time with fraternity parties and football games, Saturday-night dances and weekend drinking sprees, sentimental songs over beer steins, and love affairs that last precisely as long as they ought to.
No, today’s college crowd are far too realistic to believe a myth like that. Even before they set foot on campus, they know there is no longer much truth (if there ever was) in the old saw about college days being the happiest days of your life.
But there is one ugly fact about university life in 1965 that many new students did not, evidently, realize until they began discovering it the hard way: college can be — and often is — a most unhappy time of life.
It was probably not always so, but it is demonstrably so
today. The boom in higher education is producing problems for many more people than the administrators who have to raise the money, put up the buildings and find the teachers to process unprecedented numbers of students. For the students themselves it is creating new problems and exerting greater pressures than any previous generations of students had to face.
On the basis of recent records, university authorities can summarize the plight of today’s students with a few grim statistics :
Of the two hundred thousand students now enrolled, fifty thousand will fail or drop out.
Between thirty thousand and forty thousand students will suffer from anxieties or other emotional problems serious enough to warrant psychiatric help or other counseling.
Of those who suffer such mental disabilities, six thousand will be afflicted so seriously that their studies will be badly disrupted, if not halted outright.
Since it costs about two thousand dollars a year to put a student through college, the economic
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“There are one or two suicides on the campus every year around exam time”
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loss from dropouts will amount to $100 million.
There is no way of measuring what these losses mean to the Canadian economy of the future, much less to the careers of the young people who drop out, fail or crack up. But there is no question that all this is no mere process of weeding out the unfit. For, as Robin Ross, registrar and director of student service at the University of Toronto, puts it, “Most of the students who fail here are intellectually capable of passing the examinations."
Of all the overt reactions to the new pressures, the simple act of failing examinations and the silent act of dropping out of class, when repeated thousands of times over on campuses all across the country, may in the long run have the greatest impact on the nation.
But symptoms of anxiety that arc more dramatic — and often more tragic — are becoming disturbingly familiar phenomena on Canadian campuses. The mildest of these are irrational antics, usually around examination time, which are often hard to distinguish from sheer animal spirits. More serious results often come from another type of symptom: excessive use of pep pills and other dangerous medicants. The third and
most tragic symptom of student anxiety are suicides, which on many a campus are as predictable as highway deaths on a holiday weekend.
There seems little doubt that many of the wildest reactions to the pressures of studies and examinations get written off as simple college pranks. “Some students go a little nuts at exam time," says Byron Hender, twentyfour-year-old student president at the University of British Columbia. “They throw chairs out of dormitory windows, smash crockery and go into fits of hysteria.” Perhaps the chairthrowing crockery-smashers are the lucky ones—if the experience of one University of Manitoba student represents the reactions of a person who suppresses his violent inclinations. This student, who had come through high school with high marks and no emotional problems, developed a stutter as his first-year final exams drew near. His condition grew steadily worse until he found that when he opened his mouth to speak not a sound would come out. At the request of his family’s doctor, university authorities allowed him to write his examinations under sedation. The day he finished his last exam, his speech suddenly returned to normal. He has since had no after effects; and — incidentally — he passed.
There are far less happy endings to many of the stories on record involving students who counted on
pep pills (amphetamine or similar stimulants) getting them through exams.
“A lot of students take pep pills during the day to keep studying until 2 a.m. or so, and then take sleeping pills to get a few hours’ sleep,” says Mike Grenby, a Vancouver newspaperman who graduated from UBC two years ago. “There have been several cases of students getting so stuffed up with drugs that they conk out, sometimes in the middle of an exam.”
Grenby recalls one student who entered an exam room while overdosed with drugs. “He became so hysterical he couldn’t even remember his own name. He had to be taken from the examination room to the hospital.”
At Dalhousie University in Halifax last spring, a student relying on pep pills got through the first five days of examinations quite nicely. Then his supply of pills ran out. Exhausted from long hours of study and dependent by now on the artificial stimulant, he fell asleep during his last examination. He failed that exam — and his year. At the University of Toronto, a student with access to liberal supplies of pep pills never did find out whether he passed or failed. Right after exams, the young man died from the effects of the pills. A second tragedy shook the campus when another student died from an overdose of sedative. A third student who tried unsuccessfully to take his own life was
found to have obtained thirty-eight prescriptions from eleven doctors in the Toronto-Hamilton area.
The student deaths shocked many Toronto newspaper readers, but such cases no longer surprise student leaders who have observed the pattern of student reactions in recent years.
“There are one or two suicides on the campus every year around examination time,” says Byron Hender, the UBC student president, “but they don’t usually leak out to the newspapers.”
In a survey at the University of Toronto, of four hundred students in third and fourth year, seventeen percent of the men and thirty percent of the women said they were so depressed and despondent at times that they had considered suicide. And it was clear that many had the means readily at hand: thirty-six percent of the men and thirty-seven percent of the women said they had at some time used sedatives, tranquilizers or pep pills; and of these pill-users, one third to one half admitted they were still taking pills.
What causes lie behind these tragedies? Is college life really that much tougher today? If so, why? Are there special forces at work that are complicating campus life, or do university students simply reflect the growing tension in an anxiety - ridden world?
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While it is difficult to unravel all the factors that make college life more complicated and hazardous than ever before — and not always possible to distinguish on-campus tensions from those afflicting the community at large — it is possible to attribute some blame to certain evident trends:
The pressure to get high marks has never been greater. This pressure is intense in all faculties, but it is most evident in engineering: studies over ten years have shown that out of every hundred students who set out to become engineers, forty - three never make it. At McGill University, one rule for freshmen is disturbingly simple, as expressed by student councillor Ruth Thompson, a fourth-year science student: “If you fail more than one subject the first year, you can’t come back the following year.’’
Such pressures have made cheaters out of some mediocre but normally honest students. But the worst pressures for high marks are, ironically, exerted most often on the very students who most need relief from pressure if they are to live up to expectations. These are the scholarship winners, who must maintain averages of seventy-five or eighty percent — or give up their awards. “These are the very students who often come from underprivileged homes and are already under a handicap,’’ says Dr. Robin Hunter, professor of psychiatry at Queen’s University, Kingston. "They can’t go out and have fun like other students because everything depends on their marks.”
The transition from high school to university has never been harder. The
problem of getting oriented to campus life is as old as universities themselves. But as institutions have grown bigger and more impersonal, the adjustment problems have also grown. University counselors have files crammed with cases of students seriously perplexed over why they were attending university or what they were achieving.
“I came very close to quitting in my first year,” recalls Diana Rudd, of Haileybury, Ont., who earned a BHSc
at the University of Toronto. “Quite a lot of us started to wonder whether it was all worth the work — what did it all mean anyway?” Without a clear-cut sense of purpose, many students cannot muster the determination they need to succeed. And getting the feeling they are failing only adds to their confusion and helplessness. Miss Rudd remembers how the simple but arduous act of getting to and from the campus each day finally defeated one of her classmates. The girl lived in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. “It took her an hour and a half each way to get to the university and back. Then at night she had to study. She didn’t have time for anything else in life, so she quit.”
Dr. Doris Hirsch, a consulting psychiatrist at Dalhousie, says she has known some students so lacking in sense of purpose that they behave almost as people who have literally lost their way around the campus. Dr. Gordon Stephens, her counterpart at the University of Manitoba, blames the “anonymous campus” for this condition among many students. But Dr. Donald Upton, a phychiatrist at Queen’s, says such cases of “identity diffusions” often result in dropouts that are beneficial in the long run. “These students usually decide that the course they are in is not for them and quite frequently they take a year off to look around and come back as better students than ever.”
Paradoxically, a student’s very determination to succeed in his studies at whatever cost proves to be his undoing. Early in the fall term last year, a commerce student at the University of Manitoba collapsed in the room he occupied in a fraternity house. An investigation revealed he had been living entirely on a diet of peanut-butter sandwiches. After his breakdown he was confined to a mental hospital for several months and he lost his university year. This year he is back, repeating the course — and living under exactly the same conditions.
Lewis (Skip) Lumley, a third-year science student from Delhi, Ont., will never forget the year he spent living alone in a room far from the U of
T campus. “I can hardly begin to describe how miserable I was.” He had been living in residence on the campus but was obliged to move out when he failed a year. The U of T, he says, has many out-of-town students (“I think there are about five thousand of them”) who are living lonely lives far from the campus, in bleak rooms, with nothing to do but study and brood.
With changing patterns of behavior, social pressures have increased. For
coeds, husband - hunting has never been a more frankly serious business. “If a girl isn't engaged by her fourth year,” says Ruth Thompson, the McGill student councillor, “it’s generally considered that she has something wrong with her.” She says the pressure to take part in a wide variety of social activities is enormous — and effective. "They’re afraid they’ll be outcasts if they don’t.”
Such pressure, barely tolerable to many a well-adjusted girl, can lead to bizarre behavior by a girl who has trouble adjusting. One such case became a matter of concern to Dr. Helen McCrae, dean of women at UBC. Someone reported to her office that a coed had rushed into a dining hall where male students were eating and begun leaping from one group of boys to another, shouting, trying to feed them and climbing onto their laps. “She was an only child and came from a private school,” Dr. McCrae explains. “This was her way of trying to win acceptance.”
Students from overseas often need psychiatric help because they feel pressure to succeed academically and to achieve social acceptance at the same time. “If they fail,” says Dr. G. E. Wodehouse, director of the U of T health service, “the prestige of the family or the village is set back. The tensions and pressures are very great for them.”
Community-wide confusion over “proper” sex behavior is strongly reflected on the campus. Dr. McCrae, the women’s dean at UBC. indicates that a preoccupation with sex consumes a lot of time and attention among the coeds. “When girls come in to see me they talk about their careers and sex — but they talk about sex first,” she reports. The girls’ confusion over community standards involving sex problems was underlined on one memorable occasion when newspapers publicized a campus debate on abortion — and caused an uproar throughout Vancouver. Dean McCrae realized the coeds were probably puzzled about some questions of sex. She invited experts to visit student residences and talk to small groups of girls “in an objective, nonmoralistic way.”
Fear of homosexual tendencies is common among male students, according to Dr. Hunter, the Queen’s professor, who is a former director of the McGill mental health service. “In nearly all cases,” he adds, “their fears are false.”
With these and other lesser factors already known, what are the universities doing about them? And what should they be doing that they're not doing now?
Some of the physical causes, of
course, can’t be eliminated. The growth of the universities themselves can’t be halted, for instance, nor can ideal residences for all students be erected overnight.
One obvious step is to enlarge counseling services for students, and many universities have already done this. In many cases their appointments have been psychiatrists. McGill, for instance, which made psychiatric service available only to medical students three years ago, now offers it to all its twelve thousand five hundred students. Similarly, the University of Toronto has added psychiatrists to its staff and as well has set up an advisory bureau, the first of its kind in Canada. The new bureau will try to help students by steering them toward the counseling they need and by making more students aware that professional advice is available. The psychiatrist in charge of the bureau. Dr. D. J. McCulloch, hopes to help improve communications between the university and its students, and conduct research into the causes of student anxieties.
Now, according to the best estimates available, about two thirds of Canada’s two hundred thousand university students have access to psychiatric service, either in their own health departments or at hospitals affiliated with their universities. (Many others, of course, can get other forms of help and advice.)
Essential though it is, psychiatric help is only part of the solution and seldom gets at the causes. Students and administrators alike have been harshly critical of some of the traditional operating methods which seem partly to blame. Dean Vincent Bladen, of the U of T faculty of arts and sciences, head of a commission on education, recently summed up many people's feelings when he said, “The period of education is too short, the time devoted to examinations too long, and the temptation to cram too great.”
Within their own organizations, stu-
dents themselves are searching for new concepts in education that would ease some of the pressures — and are demanding that their suggestions be heard. The Canadian Union of Students, representing most university students across Canada, is continuing the pressure it began exerting quite successfully in 1963 for improved mentalhealth facilities on college campuses.
And the CUS mood is militant. In past years, says CUS president Patrick Kenniff, of Montreal, his organization used to send speakers into high schools to give pleasant talks about university life and its opportunities. “Now,’’ he says, “we're changing the whole concept of this program. Our speakers will talk about the real facts of life at university — about the academic, social and economic problems.” Next September, CUS will call one hundred and fifty student leaders from across Canada into a seminar on “Identity And Anxiety In The Student Generation.”
Some educators, such as Dr. Arthur Porter of the U of T’s industrial engineering department, say part of the problem goes back to the high schools. Dr. Porter is among many university people who believe that, quite apart from any inadequacies there may be in high-school teaching, poor guidance counseling alone is too often sending freshmen into courses which don't suit them and which they can’t handle.
But obviously, our universities cannot —and must not — wait for our high schools to mend their ways. A great deal can and should be done on the campus. The people who run our universities have to discover a great many things yet before they can decide which reforms are likely to be the most effective. But it is already apparent to all but the most hidebound traditionalists that Canada simply cannot afford a system of higher education in which one student out of every four becomes a dropout or a failure. ★