Photo: Alanna Rizza

Creative programs plagued with stress, anxiety and mental health issues

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By Jacob Dubé

Over the past two years, two students in creative programs at Ryerson have committed suicide, and the effects of the high-intensity nature of these programs has been called into question.

A 2015 study in Nature Neuroscience found a link between people in creative professions and mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 

Creative programs—such as RTA, film studies and interior design—are very dependent on building a solid portfolio and contacts, so some students miss out on sleep and play down their mental health issues.

Eleanor Chan, a fourth-year interior design student and a Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) board member, said the industry isn’t supportive, and nobody is willing to talk about it.

Andria Wong, a fifth-year interior design student and friend of Chan’s, was able to receive counselling from Ryerson, but only because one of her friends had a breakdown in their studio and was escorted out by an ambulance. Her friend didn’t want to tell anybody about her issues at first because she didn’t want her classmates to think of her a certain way.

After the incident, Wong and her friends got immediate access to FCAD’s counsellor.

“Chan said that whenever someone in her program wants to take a step back from work and focus on their mental health, they’re looked down on by their professors and fellow students.”

“If you’re struggling, it’s a sign of weakness. Because being in a creative field, if you’re not hardworking, how are you expected to succeed?” she said.

Although meeting counsellors at Ryerson can be challenging because of month-long waitlists, Wong says the school does have a good support system in place to deal with stress and mental health issues. She said professors are willing to help.

In Ryerson’s film studies program, students don’t have much time for anything other than work. Fourth-year film student Marissa Bergougnou said that in the final year of the program, students can go down two paths in the curriculum, both of which require them to have participating roles in at least three films.

“It’s really difficult to coordinate, especially when everyone is filming at the same time, everyone is editing at the same time, there’s limited resources. So time management is a big issue,” Bergougnou said. She says that her shooting days can be 12-hours long or more.

This year, the RTA program’s curriculum changed, pushing back the development of their end-of-degree practicum projects by one year. Instead of pitching and going through pre-production for their end-of-degree projects in fourth year, students in the RTA program must have their pitch ready by third year.

By moving pre-production a year back, it allows students more time in their fourth year to begin working on their practicum. However, some students say this change adds stress.

“Switching the program … puts added pressure on students to know what they want to do for practicum without having the proper classes to teach them key tools they need to produce a practicum,” said second-year RTA student Julianna D’Urzo.

But Robert Bull, a third-year RTA student, thinks the curriculum is supposed to relieve students’ anxiety. 

Some students in other creative programs still feel pressured, not only by the weight and workload of their curriculums, but by the mentality that the industry forces students to have.

Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi said that Ryerson does put the mental well being of its students first.

“I know that some of the programs put extra pressure on students because of the nature of the program,” he said. “We do our best to minimize the pressure on our students, but part of the requirement is making sure that students can work with certain tools. We also have to respect the framework the government has put on us.”

The main problem, Wong said, is that students have to be able to accept that they need help.

“The issue is a lot of the students are completely afraid. And I know that people who really need that help, they’re just surviving,” she said. “I wish there was more transparency and more support, and open conversation about with that idea.”

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