Overcoming obstacles to mental health on campus

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Mental health issues come with a slew of negative connotations. Often people view mental illness as a single disorder instead of an umbrella term for a complex variety of distinct issues that are quite common—including eating disorders, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder.

According to a Statistics Canada Survey, mental illness is most commonly experienced  between 15 and 24 years of age. Consequently, university is the ideal place to dispel misconceptions and tackle the problems surrounding mental health.

The stigma surrounding mental health is ingrained in our everyday practices. The media industry sensationalizes the violence and unpredictability of persons with mental health conditions—for instance, Pat’s erratic behaviour in Silver Linings Playbook. These portrayals are not merely harmful in perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes, but they contribute directly to the attitudes that individuals facing mental health issues come to internalise.

“Sometimes families, or even certain cultures can be disapproving of psychological or medical interventions,” adds Dr. Robert Franck, clinical director of McGill’s Mental Health Services, in contextualizing negative perceptions.

“Many people associate seeking assitance from a mental health service as being a sign of personal weakness at best, or that they are ‘crazy’ at worst,” says Franck.

Although the origins and nature of stigma vary, it remains one of the largest barriers to students seeking much needed help.

As a university, McGill is an environment where students attempt to exude nothing less than perfection. Academic stress and anxiety mark a majority of students’ mental health issues, and many students do not articulate such troubles out of the fear of being ostracized. Indeed the scope of stigmatization and cultural norms may impede individuals from even reaching out to close family members and friends.

As difficult as it is to take that first step in seeking help, there are additional roadblocks to students seeking professional assistance.

“The biggest problem we have is our therapy wait-list,” Franck explains. “It is essential that students be able to have rapid and timely access to regular therapy sessions.” According to Franck, these wait times are not conducive to ameliorating stress levels, and can actually lend a hand in increasing them.

Aside from disheartening wait times, students have also expressed frustration with the way the professional system treats mental health problems. Emilie Macisaac, U3, said she sees health professionals as individuals who “put you in a box because they are not familiar with your personal history and will treat you as a generalized case.”

The direction in which McGill Mental Health Services are moving puts a growing emphasis on promoting positive mental health outlooks at a broader level through the creation of an inclusive campus body with strong coping capabilities. A systematic approach to campus mental health was a big topic during the Canadian Association of College and University Student Service conference held at McGill last June.

Moreover, Franck said McGill’s Mental Health Services has been awarded a five-year Bell Canada grant to create an online tool that can assess students at risk, helping the office reach more students in need. The upcoming project is planned to start in the Winter semester.

Other projects include the development of a student Peer Support Network, which includes workshops aimed at developing students’ skills in areas such as active listening, in order to enable them to talk to and help a peer in need.

Most immediately, the Students in Mind Conference is set to take place on Oct. 5. As the first student-run conference on mental health at McGill, the conference will teach concrete strategies in mental health support and care, not only for oneself but also for the larger community.

Despite the overwhelming systemic problems preventing access to mental health services, Franck believes the reality of a more open and understanding community is promising. “Fortunately, younger people are increasingly challenging these negative perceptions and trying to reach out and get connected when they are in distress,” he says.