Lip service to mental illness is not the final frontier

It seems you can’t pick up a student newspaper, hear a student council election speech or pass by a campus bulletin without seeing or hearing the words “mental health.”

Mental health: we need to talk about it. Mental health: it’s as important as physical health. Mental health: erasing the stigma.

This is good, right? We do need to talk about mental health issues, especially among university students. I first noticed the increased saturation of conversations about mental heath at my alma matter, Wilfrid Laurier University, following a tragic and terrifying residence fire in my freshman year, 2009, which resulted in the death of one student, a well-liked varsity athlete. The fire was ruled as a suicide the following school year, and residence life dons were subject to more thorough training to recognize issues similar to the ones which lead to the tragedy.

The problem I now see is that “mental health” has become a new buzz-term said over and over by people who either don’t understand or don’t want to talk about the severity of mental illness.

In attempting to remove the “stigma” of mental illness, we’ve also avoided talking about the parts of mental illness that are downright ugly.

The words “mental health” are used in such general, nonchalant ways and as a result all mental health problems are regarded as homogeneous, with homogeneous solutions. Campus “experts” often cite class stress, separation anxiety from home, adjustment to a new life and relationship problems as common issues for students, and while these certainly need to be addressed, it seems that they are pussyfooting around some real big, significant problems — problems that maybe aren’t so easy to “just talk” about.

As many times as I have simply heard the words “mental health,” “issues,” and “stress,” and occasionally the words “depression” and “anxiety,” I could count on one hand the number of times I have heard the words “self-harm,” “suicide,” “disordered eating,” “addiction,” “abuse,” “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “assault” used in mental health campaigns.

Launching campaigns to assure people that they’re not alone and they’re not weird because they’re stressed out is all well and good, but there’s a difference between common anxieties shared by the vast majority of a student body and far grittier problems such as addiction.

While I definitely cooed at the notion of Laurier’s “puppy room” last December during fall 2012 exams, to hear that it was regarded as a “mental health” campaign only further emphasized to me that student mental health campaigns are still merely scratching the surface of true mental health problems. Not every problem can be solved with a puppy. In fact, most cannot.

Having someone to discuss your issues with is often invaluable, but that does not mean that it is helpful for everyone. Money being put toward mental health issues for post-secondary students should be put into more councillors equipped for dealing with very specific problems, not bubblegum poster campaigns.


One thought on “Lip service to mental illness is not the final frontier

  1. Your post was interesting to me because my son recently had the same complaint about “mental health week” at school. I’m sure this effort was in response to two suicides at our high school in the last calendar year, and it’s a good thing that the topic is being addressed. But our son’s rant was that everything done was incredibly superficial, truly not getting to the heart of the issues of depression or mental illness in regards to what it looks like, how to get help, etc. It was more “put on a happy face and be nice to people to cheer them up.” So sad and such a missed opportunity.

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