Last week the hallways of the Brown building filled up with students and young adults volunteering for Bell’s mental health initiative, “Let’s Talk”. The three-day initiative at McGill focuses on ending stigma surrounding mental health by encouraging conversations on the topic. Despite being ready and open to talk about the importance of mental health, I couldn’t help but cringe at the enthusiastic volunteers distributing merchandise and food. In no way do I mean to denounce the importance of mental health, or the initiative itself, but I find it necessary to point out some of the ways I believe McGill and the community has and continues to inadequately treat the issue of mental health.
It is widely thought that McGill Mental Health Services — the very body that exists in order to deal with these issues — is not so good at its job. More and more students are expressing their frustration mainly on social media: the unkind behaviour of administrators, low levels of professionalism of the doctors, and the overall sense of disinterest in the very people seeking help, to name a few examples.
The problem, however, does not stop with the formal structures in place. We cannot forget about the student body. If you visit McGill’s website promoting the “Bell’s Let’s Talk” initiative, there is a four-step guide about how students can contribute. These include, for example, wearing the hats given out by volunteers and being active on social media with a special hashtag or camera filter. Well, let me break it to you: these won’t turn lives around. Having my Facebook and Instagram feeds filled with hashtagged posts helped me see just how hypocritical the student body is. I learned that virtually none of my friends thought that mental health is less important than physical health. Case in point: no one was there for me when I missed a class and needed to borrow notes; or when all the seats were taken because I stopped halfway up University Street to catch my breath, resulting in having to sit on the stairs. But, hey, what issue can’t be solved by giving out free hot cocoa and cookies?
But what is McGill’s fault, is where they placed their offices, and you would hardly find a bigger statement of exclusion than the placement of Health Services in the Brown building.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial to keep in mind that all that I have mentioned so far is just the effects of an existing underlying issue. Notice how our society constantly needs to label things, and then deal with them as if it is impossible without categorization. While being one of the top institutions of higher education in North America, McGill’s policies relating to accommodating students with a variety of valid issues are incomplete at best, and outright negligible at worst. There is an existing office meant to deal with disabilities of all sorts‚ staffed with the only people that actually go above and beyond to help you have the best learning experience at McGill – and formal contractual obligations about accessibility and inclusiveness are present where needed. But in reality, I’ve never seen a less accessible campus. I admit, that is not McGill’s fault, it’s just the way Montreal is. But what is McGill’s fault, is where they placed their offices, and you would hardly find a bigger statement of exclusion than the placement of Health Services in the Brown building.
I am a person with a severe physical disability, which takes its toll in various ways. One of them being mental health issues. My physical disability, however, cannot be seen nor can my mental health issues. And so, for the vast majority of the people that I interact with on the daily, I am not eligible for any “special treatment”. The reality is, that most disabilities, just like mine, are not clear-cut, and too many diverge from what society has reduced them to. Physical disability comes in many forms and severities; don’t let the official sign of a disabled person on a wheelchair deceive you. Mental illness is so much more than depression.
Nothing about a disability is less real before this realization, except for the possibility of getting in some way accommodations and some level of empathy from McGill. And that’s the problem.
In addition, it was only until recently that I was able to personally come to terms with the fact that my life will forever be much different from my peers. Nothing about this realization is easy, and that is often not emphasized enough within the university community. It gets particularly hard, especially if your disability is such that your surroundings treat you as if you didn’t have it. It is oftentimes said that a call for help is the first step to recovery, but truth is that the first step is to admit that you have a problem. Admitting anything to others and asking for help are advanced level coping skills. It should be okay that people, who are just now becoming young adults, don’t have these skills. Nothing about a disability is less real before this realization, except for the possibility of getting in some way accommodations and some level of empathy from McGill. And that’s the problem. It’s astounding that with such diversity in disability and in coping, we have just a few policies in place to accommodate them.
I wish McGill could wake up, so that many students can wake up from this nightmare that is every day within its gates. I wish a day comes when we won’t be judged for walking out of a handicapped-people’s bathroom; when we won’t have to fill out X number of forms in order to drop a course that we just couldn’t handle; and when we will be able to talk about each and every aspect of our health, regardless if it fits within one of society’s pretty little labels.