'OK', you say, 'this is all very well, but you are using only an anecdotal sample here, within this question that could amount to three people in the entire world.'
What is my point? My point is that, even if the sample size of my investigation is only minute, I believe that in an optimal educational system, there should be no link whatsoever between negative mental health outcomes and higher education.
Recently, my son has been having bouts of severe anxiety, which sometimes include migraines, and right now consist of symptoms such as vomiting. It is only in the last two days that he has admitted to having had panic attacks since high school. Currently, he is a first year student on scholarship, studying Advanced Science. Even before starting university, he was a highly accomplished young man with letters after his name for his musical accomplishments. He started studying classical piano before the age of 5 and has done all the practical grades, five of the theory grades and the AMUS examination.
In kindergarten, his teachers described him as 'responsible', and saw leadership qualities in the making. At the end of primary school, he was the boy school captain; at the end of high school, he had gained the second place on the honour roll of the private school he attended, only 0.65 mark behind the top student, a girl. By this year, he had finished the first set of exams with all high distinctions and only one distinction... but he had phoned me after the first exam and told me that he had had a severe panic attack, and that he was feeling very unsettled. When I suggested he go to a counsellor, he made and appointment and then cancelled when he got through the second exam without panicking. I was unhappy about this and suggested that the panic attacks would return and that he needed to have a strategy in place.
Now, a month or two on from that event, the anxiety has returned. The fear of being able to negotiate the enormous workload of the second semester of his first year of university, has caused an even greater, more physically and psychologically destabilising experience than the first time. This time, he has heeded my advice and gone to see a counsellor at the university. This has already borne some fruit and he has begun a journey to address his own perfectionist tendencies and to establish better coping mechanisms.
I confess to being extremely concerned about his long-term mental health. In my mid-thirties, I had what some would describe as a 'nervous breakdown' which took six months out of my ability to function well in my life.
Last week, I thought about walking out in front of a truck. 'Surely, you are not serious' you say, as you read this. Well, yes and no. Seriously, I had the thought but no, likely I would not have carried out the action. I make the point here though with a serious intent - to draw attention to the stressors that may drive someone to self abnegation or even self annihilation. Fortunately, or not, I am far too logical for suicide, though not too unselfish for it to cross my mind.
Like my son, I have found myself in a situation that is testing the limits of my mental and emotional resources, within the university system. Unlike my son, I have already studied at a higher education level for over sixteen years and find myself now at a point where I am questioning the entire value of that education - as the system which I turned to all those years ago in a quest for personal enrichment, seems to have become a system more focused on governmental compliance and 'administrivia' than actual education.
I am not alone in my despair. Between friends, I have many very accomplished scholars, who have experienced the long hard road that is the Masters, PhD or post-doc journey. In private conversations, we share one another's trials and tribulations. When I am close to giving up entirely, close friends assure me that I must keep going and not let the system get me down. At parties, other friends who teach at various universities, trade in-jokes about the failings in the system. None of us are high enough up the 'food-chain' to make a difference but at least, we can offer each other some consolation.
Last year, some fine teachers retired from our 'school' at the university. A story went around that some were literally crying in the corridor, bewailing the hopelessness of 'trying to make a difference' within a university where the 'suits' seem to be in an adversarial position in relation to the teaching staff, inside a system that seems to be all about universities trying to pry monies out of increasingly reluctant governments. So, you can see, that it is not easy to maintain one's faith in the system, when one's own mentors are themselves 'breaking down'.
To be continued...