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Editorial: The Ryerson School of Journalism has created the perfect storm for a mental health crisis

By Catherine Abes

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains mentions of suicide and discrimination.

For years, Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ) students have addressed issues within the school that we knew would inevitably lead to a mental health crisis. At this point, it only feels like a matter of time before tragedy strikes.

In the last few weeks, RSJ students have been discussing in detail the years of stress and trauma that former and current marginalized students have endured at the school. This work comes on top of jobs, school and just trying to survive as young people in the pandemic; not to mention how specifically exhausting it is do to work that draws on experiences of being racialized, gaslighted and demeaned—all common experiences among students.

I’m inspired by these students’ work. I believe they’re going to bring about meaningful change in the program. But this change should’ve never been their burden, and while they give me hope, I worry for them. These students have long surpassed their capacity to advocate for themselves.
The school has created a particularly dangerous space for marginalized students, including Black, Indigenous, racialized, queer and trans folks. They’re shamed for acknowledging their lived experiences of discrimination lest it compromise their ability to report “objectively” on racism or homophobia, but are also encouraged to lean into the “unique perspective” that they could bring to predominantly straight, cis, white newsrooms.

In classrooms and otherwise, the onus of change; of embodying diversity, is left on these students, but when they push back against traditional journalism tenets and practices that have been historically harmful, they become a problem. Holding institutions to account is encouraged until the institution is the school itself.

There’s no winning for these students, only fighting to be taken seriously—an extra layer of labour on top of the amount of work already required to make this degree worth it.

According to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases 11th revision (ICD-11), burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. The ICD characterizes burnout as a combination of exhaustion, feelings of cynicism or mentally distancing oneself from the job and a sense of inadequacy or failure.

The RSJ is structured in such a way that burnout is inevitable. Pushing your capacity for work is not only encouraged but necessitated by the lack of opportunity to gain valuable experience in classrooms. From the start, students are encouraged to “make the most of their degree” by volunteering for on-campus publications and racking up bylines so they have a portfolio by the time they graduate. We pay thousands of dollars for a degree that still has to be supplemented by unpaid labour.

On top of this, to do an unpaid internship to fulfill the requirements for graduation, students are charged $1,550 in tuition fees alone. We pay to work for free, or for small honorariums at most, for either six weeks full-time or twelve weeks part-time. The workload is difficult at best to balance with a job, meaning many students who need an income never get these opportunities.

The traditional narrative of hard work paying off that’s happily peddled by many of the RSJ’s white alumni fails to acknowledge the kind of privilege needed to be able to work for free. Students with fewer bylines are left behind and overlooked as if they just hadn’t tried hard enough, creating a culture of overworking not by choice but necessity. The implication is the best journalists would hustle and make it work regardless of their personal circumstances. The reality is many of the most successful journalists in the industry had a head start.

Holding institutions to account is encouraged until the institution is the school itself

A hyper-competitive environment alone can be detrimental to students’ mental health. The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s (UofT) newspaper, wrote that students attribute the school’s mental health crisis to “the unhealthy and competitive nature of academic life,” particularly in the Department of Computer Science. UofT has seen five student deaths since June 2018, three of which occurred in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology—the hub for computer science students.

It’s cruel but unsurprising that while the journalism school perpetuates these issues, it offers little support. It’s not a secret that Ryerson’s mental health services are dangerously lacking, but these issues are compounded when you have no one to advocate for you. Many students go it alone because they don’t see themselves represented in our overwhelmingly white, straight and cisgendered faculty.

Mentorship opportunities work much in the same way, with white students being favoured by white professors, producing more successful white journalists; rinse and repeat. The ICD cited feelings of cynicism as a dimension of burnout. As a marginalized student, it’s hard to take school seriously knowing no matter how hard you work, the same people will always remain ahead.

At the Journalism Course Union’s recent semi-annual general meeting (SAGM), an opportunity for students to openly address issues within the program with faculty, queer and racialized students brought forward their concerns and personal stories of trauma to a panel of white faculty members. The faculty seemed shocked that there was so much harm done to students that they’d seemingly never heard of before, though these conversations have been happening on campus, social media and behind closed doors for years. They questioned why no one felt comfortable coming to them. But the reality is there are very few avenues to do so.
Most often faculty recommend a one-on-one meeting, something that can be intimidating especially when this faculty member is embedded in the industry you intend on working for in the future. Opportunities to get to know faculty more casually, or spaces for students to speak to people they may be more comfortable with, are rarely fostered outside of the aforementioned SAGM.

When a student is brave enough to come forward, their concerns often go unaddressed. I’ve heard horror stories of students bounced from counselling to equity centres to chair’s offices and back again. The system feels designed to make sure complaints get lost.

Aside from accessible faculty, there are ways to support students that I’ve yet to see from the RSJ. My job as editor-in-chief extends far beyond editorial responsibilities. I am not just an editor but a counsellor, career mentor and therapist—I go to therapy every week just to make space for the emotional labour that comes with being the person everyone goes to.
I don’t regret the work for a second because I care about these students. But I won’t forgive the RSJ for putting me and past EICs in this position, especially given we have a fraction of the resources they’re working with. I know the power of a compassionate leader and so I resent the school for not acknowledging how necessary this support is for students.

In the next week, students of the RSJ will release their list of demands for the school. I, along with The Eye’s masthead, implore the school to take tangible action in addressing these demands; not because this is bad PR for the school, not because it’s in line with Ryerson’s “equity, diversity and inclusion” values, but because students’ lives are at stake. Depending on students to do the work and call for change is fundamentally unsustainable given the existing conditions of the school.

This reckoning is built upon years—decades even—of inaction, but the RSJ doesn’t have any more time to waste. The consequences will be dire.

Community members who are affected by this story and/or in need of support can contact the following resources: 

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • ConnexOntario: Free and confidential health services information for people experiencing problems with alcohol and drugs, mental health and/or gambling. Available 24/7. at 1-866-531-2600
  • Hope for Wellness Help Line: Offers immediate mental health counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous peoples across Canada. 1-855-242-3310
  • Good2Talk: 24/7 confidential helpline for post-secondary students in Ontario providing referrals about services and supports for mental health, addictions and well-being. 1-866-925-5454
  • LGBT Youth Line: Provides confidential phone and text support for 2LGBTQA youth, operating Sunday – Friday 4pm – 9:30PM. Phone: 1-800-268-9688 Text: 647-692-0777
  • Trans Lifeline: 24/7 Confidential hotline staffed by transgender people for transgender people. 1-877-330-6366
  • Affordable Therapy Network: A directory of therapists offering affordable counselling across Canada
  • Stella’s Place: Offers mental health services to youth in Toronto aged 16-29
  • Ryerson Centre for Student Development and Counselling
  • More resources here

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