Incorporated: Student Mental Health Discourse and Higher Education in Canada

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Phillipson, Andrea
mental health , higher education , corporatization , Canada
“Student mental health” has recently emerged as a pervasive discourse on Canadian postsecondary campuses, characterized by non-profit organizations’ expanding role in defining and managing students’ mental health, students’ active participation in shaping and perpetuating discourses of distress and wellbeing, and institutions’ promises to build thriving communities. Prior to 2011, students’ psychological wellbeing received little concerted attention, but a number of student suicides propelled the topic onto the national stage. Although media coverage framed the problem in part as the crisis of a generation struggling to succeed in an inhospitable, overly demanding education system, the postsecondary sector embraced the language of “student mental health” and quickly transformed it into an institutional branding strategy. I address this seeming contradiction by considering the cultural, political, and economic work that student mental health discourse does to benefit the institution of postsecondary education. Influenced by the theoretical perspectives of Nikolas Rose and by cultural studies methodologies, I map the shifting discursive terrain of student mental health discourse, focusing on three main figures: the student in distress, the campus community charged with identifying and responding to that student, and the student mental health leader. I examine documentary evidence including institutional reports, strategic plans, mental health models, organization websites, media reports, press releases, and student mental health campaign materials. I articulate these with public displays of student mental health promotion, through which students perform their understandings of distress as signs of biomedical problems and of mental health as something “we all have.” My findings reveal that acknowledging student distress has become integral to Canadian postsecondary education’s corporatization process. Such acknowledgement prompts the emergence of a “caring community” that operates in the interest and image of the corporate world, melding the values and goals of the postsecondary sector’s market logic with the hopeful acts of the students who seek out the validation, warmth, and professional potential offered by this extracurricular education. I argue that student mental health discourse both draws in and retains willing student participants, thus intervening in postsecondary corporatization’s potential depletion of one of its greatest resources: human capital in the form of the student body.
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