Destigmatizing Mental Health

Illustration by Annie Tseng

“Mental health is arguably the most pressing issue facing students at university.”

And so reads SSMU’s policy outline on mental health, a claim that is later substantiated by a set of frightening facts and figures on the state of mental health at McGill. In an online survey conducted by SSMU during the winter of 2012, it was found that roughly 10 percent of 463 respondents had considered suicide in their time at the university. Meanwhile, 4 percent had in fact attempted to end their own lives. Furthermore, in the 2012-2013 academic year, McGill’s Mental Health Services reported a 25 percent increase in the number of cases undertaken.

Any true understanding of the devastating gravity of these figures is reserved for the burdened, as there is no formula that can begin to calculate nor do justice to the suffering of these students and their loved ones. One can’t help but be saddened by the fact that these young and bright individuals are faced with a daily struggle trying to find the satisfaction necessary to make life worth living, with a number of them almost succumbing to their despair. In light of this, we are forced to think about our duties and responsibilities towards mental health, both as individuals and as a community.

While there is always room for improvement, SSMU has led the charge by implementing a number of praiseworthy measures in a notable effort to raise awareness. These commendable actions are consistent with the organization’s founding principles that “all students have a right to live and study in an atmosphere that promotes and facilitates wellness, and mental and physical health.” Following years of the ongoing stigmatization of mental illnesses in the academic community and society at large, it is truly uplifting to see time and financial resources being dedicated to helping those of us who are afflicted.

This year, Rez Life, the organization that runs mandatory consent seminars in residence, added a mental health awareness component to its Rez Project workshops. This initiative is quite significant, as it makes a critical difference in creating “safer spaces” for individuals who experience mental health issues in residence. If you suffer from, say, a depressive disorder, the hope is that the acknowledgement of your condition through honest dialogue will reduce the alienation that too often results from living with people who may not understand your predicament because of a lack of common experience.

Encouragingly, this month, from November 7th to 16th, Rez Life is holding a Mental Health Awareness Week in collaboration with a variety of student groups. As part of a campus-wide initiative led by McGill Mental Health Services, events include open forums on student experiences, talks on mental health in residence, and a variety of therapy-oriented measures. Additionally, as per SSMU’s Mental Health Five Year Plan, a Mental Health Committee “comprised of representatives from student mental health groups on campus” will be established under the portfolio of SSMU’s VP University Affairs.

These vital steps, which emphasize prevention and “mental health first aid,” come at the same time as the recent announcement of the McGill Wellness Portal, whose main objective is to destigmatize mental health treatment and increase awareness of the many campus services that often go underused. With a $500,000 grant from Bell, the University is developing a self-screening website where students will be able to identify the possible symptoms they may be experiencing of different mental health issues – such as anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and eating disorders – from the comfort and privacy of their own bedroom. Now in the testing stages, this new tool – which will also provide students with directions toward appropriate care – is slated for release in March or April 2015.

The experience of suffering mental health issues at university, be it in first year or due to exam stress, is grueling without a doubt. Thankfully, the two initiatives described above are truly significant steps in the right direction. I am no expert on the subject, but it is my hope that they will make a crucial difference.

That being said, while most rightfully hail the remarkable efforts of our mental health services, it is no secret that they are badly strained, so much so that horror stories of students being misdiagnosed/screened out sometimes accompany those of successful recovery. Hopefully, these new measures will serve to relieve our financially limited Mental Health Services by increasing the reach and use of preventive action.

Combined with the work of our excellent clinical staff, one can only hope these initiatives will serve to create a healthier environment for all McGill students. Not only will we have better access to care in our moments of need, but we will also find it easier to discuss these issues of mental health with a crowd that is more educated, and in an environment that is more tolerant and hopefully less stigmatized.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

[ERRATUM: In the November 2014 print issue, it was printed that Mental Health Awareness Week occurred from October 5-11; it is taking place from November 7-16. We apologize for the error.]