If excelling is the goal, then schools should do their part to help

Post-secondary staff are reluctant to aid students who feel inadequate, leading those students to feel their only choices are to succeed or commit suicide

Courtesy of the University of Alberta

Written by Eva Zhu, Opinions Editor

Life has been a game of striving for perfection since the beginning of high school. No longer were you allowed to squander your afternoons away playing basketball or skateboarding outside with friends until dinnertime. These precious hours were filled with after-school clubs, tutoring, and countless trips to the library, which were all supposed to lead to one thing: acceptance to university. For many kids, failure was not an option, and if they did fail, they hid their tests and report cards from their parents until it was no longer possible to do so.

What happens when the strive for perfection goes too far? How do we save the depressed and burnt out students who are so afraid of failing they resort to committing suicide? We can’t expect students to suddenly snap out of their burnt out states and be okay again. While progress has been made towards providing counselling services to students in emotional distress and educating students on how to get help from these services, school administrations continue to work within outdated ideas and guidelines in order to maintain a competitive culture that prioritizes achievement while ignoring student health.

This is where the problem lies: schools expect students to pass their classes and keep up a strong GPA, but they are often not willing to reach out to understand why a student may be underperforming. The expectation seems to be that students will work it all out for themselves. If they can’t? Well, then they just weren’t cut out for post-secondary education.

People seem to forget that the transition from high school to university or college can be daunting. Not every student who excelled in the former can do so in the latter. Add to this the pressure of living on your own for the first time and classes like calculus courses that take place at 8 a.m. that are designed to “weed out” any students that aren’t “dedicated enough” to university, and it’s not hard to see why some students crack.

Recently, The New York Times published an article discussing the final days and suicide of a former Hamilton College student. The student was failing three out of four of his classes and felt like “a failure with no life prospects.” Instead of working with other staff to understand why he was failing, his professors collectively sent him four academic warnings. It doesn’t take a genius to know that these warnings were only going to drive him into a deeper depression.

Furthermore, the article mentions that staff are not obliged to contact the parents of any student who appears to be distressed. According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), they are also not required to let parents know that a student may be suicidal. Again, it doesn’t take a genius to predict that staff at universities and colleges don’t want to take responsibility for students’ deteriorating mental health. This particular student’s parents were only notified days after his death.

Are Canadian post-secondary institutions any better at helping students navigate the strive for perfection? Sadly, we’re not much better. Canada Updates reported that in 2017, two University of Waterloo students committed suicide within three months of each other. Four University of Guelph students did the same in the span of seven months. The percentage of post-secondary students who have seriously considered suicide rose to 13.5% in 2017 from 10% in 2016. Of the reasons attributed to the suicides, one of the most common was feeling hopeless.

Schools can’t keep failing their students, especially not to this degree. I know society thinks we shouldn’t keep coddling young adults as they get older, but when we are ingraining in students’ minds that the need to excel is of utmost importance and takes precedence over their own well-being, then schools should be obliged to step in and offer support to those who aren’t able to meet their goals. By this, I don’t mean health and counselling services. In many cases, health and counselling services can only salvage a student’s health, not their grades and goals. Professors should reach out to failing students and figure out the underlying problem, because I can guarantee you, academic warnings will only push them further off the edge.