The statistics are staggering. Universities are overwhelmed by the demand for help they cannot meet. Too many of their students, far from living the best days of their lives, are living the last days of their lives.
In 2012, Queen's University was moved by six student suicides to prepare a white paper on creating a robust mental health strategy. This year, Guelph University has had staff going door-to-door in student residences to check on the mental health of their students, following four student suicides there. Tragic suicides are, however, but the tip of an enormous iceberg while, as in an iceberg, much of the danger is hidden from view. And the extent of the danger is hard to believe.
The Canadian Mental Health Association tells us that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the 15-24 age group. The National College Health Assessment released in 2016, found that 59.6 per cent of students experienced feeling hopeless in the previous 12 months, while 44.4 per cent felt so depressed they could not function. Thirteen per cent seriously considered suicide, and 2.1 per cent attempted it.
It is clear that strenuous efforts need to be made to prevent mental illness as well as to cure it. And here, the universities need to look hard at themselves, and at their part in creating the problems they now seek to solve, for they exercise profound influence over the high school years of the students they admit.
The students are having problems in universities for a variety of reasons, but lack of resilience and insufficiently developed strength of character are high on the list.
Unhappily, the entrance requirements of universities seek evidence for none of these things. Marks are all that matter, and those only in 'academic' subjects. So the high school students give scant effort to those courses designed to address life-skills, such as British Columbia's Planning 10 and Graduation Transitions programs. Mandatory they may be, but neither students, their parents, nor the schools that secretly give a fig for their place in the "rankings," take them seriously enough. Indeed, the battle for marks leads students to stop doing many of the things that would keep them mentally healthy and build the necessary resilience in them -- things like music lessons, team sports, significant volunteerism, reading for pleasure, art, hiking, climbing, backwoods expeditions and so on.
And what are they doing instead? Either working hard to earn marks that matter by doing excessive homework, spending hours with tutors, losing sleep and neglecting relationships, or idling their time away knowing they will be given the marks they need by schools keen to boost their university admissions statistics, but not concerning themselves with what happens to their students thereafter!
Neither case augurs well for the university years.
Fortunately, it seems some helpful initiatives have begun. In 2016, Harvard Graduate School of Education published Making Caring Common, a paper endorsed by Admissions Officers at some 80 leading universities. The paper suggests that the admissions process can counteract a narrow focus on personal success and promote in young people greater appreciation of others and the common good and offers recommendations in three areas:
1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the common good.
2. Assessing students' ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.
3. Redefining achievement in ways that...reduce excessive achievement pressure.
Perhaps even more influence will be garnered by the new Institute on Character and Admission which presents its mandate as follows:
Recent years have brought serious concern about the pathologies of American education: resentment of "high-stakes" testing; young men and women pushed to win the competition for a small number of slots at the most selective colleges or private schools; high levels of depression and suicide among students at every level; an admissions system perceived to reward students with cognitive ability at the expense of students with an array of character strengths.
Finally, it appears, there is an appetite for authentic, on-the-ground steps to change the way we do things. With all the rhetoric about what's wrong and for all the general calls to fix the system, a dedicated group of impatient people are aligned with Thoreau's comment that "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." The Institute is a culmination -- and gathering -- of this momentum.
The Institute accepts that character strengths are crucial to assessing candidates and that the prevailing college admissions process must change in order to find the most promising candidates for academic and vocational success. This is the Institute's mandate.
Here at The Westside School, where we have completely re-imagined high school, we believe strongly that the pre-requisite for a successful good life is a strong moral character, so we make every effort to help our students develop one. We applaud those who are having significant success in convincing universities and others that demonstrable strength of character should be an important factor in admissions' decisions: it is, after all, to judge from the growing concern about the mental health of students, clearly an important factor in post-admission success.
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