What men­tal ill­ness is ‘SUP­POSED TO LOOK LIKE’

Re­duc­ing stereo­types around the ‘proper’ ways to be men­tally ill

The McGill Daily - - Commentary - Na­dia Boachie Na­dia Boachie is a U3 Cog­ni­tive Science stu­dent. To con­tact the au­thor, email na­dia.boachie@mail.mcgill.ca.

Con­tent warn­ing: men­tal ill­ness, treat­ment

An alarm­ing 66 per cent of un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents at Mcgill re­port feel­ing “aca­demic dis­tress” over the course of the school year. Cur­rently, we are be­ing hit with waves of midterms and pa­pers, and soon we’ll be struck with the tsunami known as fi­nals sea­son. Paired with a lack of sleep and ex­ces­sive amounts of caf­feine in­take, this aca­demic pres­sure can cre­ate a stress­ful en­vi­ron­ment, and is just one of many fac­tors that can trig­ger emo­tional tur­moil for stu­dents at Mcgill. 90 per cent of stu­dents at Mcgill re­ported feel­ing over­whelmed at some point over the course of the year, 56 per cent re­ported feel­ing over­whelm­ing anx­i­ety, and 40 per cent re­ported feel­ing so de­pressed it was dif­fi­cult to func­tion. Repet­i­tive bouts of stress can have dif­fer­ent un­der­ly­ing causes for each stu­dent. The com­pet­i­tive aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment can ex­ac­er­bate emo­tional stress. Men­tal ill­ness man­i­fests in dif­fer­ent ways, but those who do not have stereo­typ­i­cal and tra­di­tional em­bod­i­ments of men­tal ill­ness, or those who are deemed not ‘sick enough,’ are not taken se­ri­ously and are of­ten over­looked.

The over­whelm­ing sense of com­pe­ti­tion among stu­dents that ex­ists at in­sti­tu­tions like Mcgill con­trib­ute to high lev­els of aca­demic stress. Among stu­dents, a hi­er­ar­chy forms: those who con­tinue to ex­cel as they pre­vi­ously had and those who find them­selves ad­just­ing to their new en­vi­ron­ment at a slower pace. Un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents are at a stage in their lives where they are at­tempt­ing to cre­ate a plat­form for them­selves. The gen­eral idea is that suc­cess now will lead to suc­cess­ful en­deav­ors af­ter grad­u­a­tion. Mcgill stu­dents find them­selves as­so­ci­at­ing poor aca­demic per­for­mance to­day with a pes­simistic outlook for the fu­ture. The an­tic­i­pa­tion and per­fec­tion­ism that man­i­fests in Mcgill stu­dents are traits that have been linked to the devel­op­ment of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sive dis­or­ders.

Stu­dents of­ten need ex­ter­nal as­sis­tance from men­tal health re­sources to read­just or learn self-reg­u­la­tion strate­gies to help cope with emo­tional dis­tress. It is im­per­a­tive that stu­dents who feel they re­quire men­tal health ser­vices are not de­nied so be­cause they don’t qual­ify as ‘men­tally ill enough.’ It is im­per­a­tive that those who are not con­sid­ered ‘ill enough’ re­ceive care be­fore they are in cri­sis. Some peo­ple go through stress­ful pe­ri­ods with lit­tle dif­fi­culty and ar­rive at the fin­ish line un­scathed and there are a few who suf­fer mi­nor stum­bles along the way. But some of us suf­fer from too many falls, cuts and bruises dur­ing the marathon that is an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree. Some run through the pain without giv­ing any ob­vi­ous in­di­ca­tion of dis­tress. Oth­ers out­wardly gri­mace in pain in­di­cat­ing to oth­ers that there is cause for con­cern. Some find them­selves fall­ing be­hind in the race and cre­ate such a gap between them­selves and their peers that it be­comes hard to ever catch up without ex­ter­nal as­sis­tance. There is a sort of men­tal health care ra­tioning that ex­ist at Mcgill’s Men­tal Health clinic. Although they try to pro­vide for as many stu­dents as they can, they place priority on only those stu­dent who need ‘ur­gent care,’ while also dis­miss­ing many of these stu­dents as ‘too ill,’ cit­ing that Mcgill is “not a hospi­tal.” When Mcgill stu­dents de­cide to reach out to ex­ter­nal re­sources avail­able on cam­pus, of­ten those who are deemed too high func­tion­ing -- the marathon­ers who may not out­wardly gri­mace in pain — are not given the ap­pro­pri­ate at­ten­tion they de­serve be­cause the don’t fall into the ‘sweet spot’ Mcgill sees as fit for treat­ment.

So what does poor men­tal health or men­tal ill­ness look like? Re­searchers have high­lighted ge­netic and neu- ronal vari­a­tion between in­di­vid­u­als based on race, gen­der, so­cioe­co­nomic back­ground to name a few. There is no def­i­nite an­swer to the ques­tion of what men­tal ill­ness should look like. Sci­en­tists ac­knowl­edge that the vari­a­tion in the hu­man brain means that men­tal ill­ness will nat­u­rally man­i­fest in a va­ri­ety of ways, but this un­der­stand­ing doesn’t trans­late sim­i­larly in our com­mu­ni­ties. Sev­eral stud­ies have come up with re­li­able ev­i­dence for the dele­te­ri­ous ef­fect of racism on men­tal health. Sim­i­larly, there is ev­i­dence of poor men­tal health in LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties, in com­par­i­son to het­ero­sex­u­als. There is a cor­re­la­tion between lower so­cioe­co­nomics and the qual­ity of your men­tal health. We need to ac­knowl­edge that men­tal ill­ness does not have the same causes or look the same among dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties at Mcgill.

We have all found our­selves guilty of hav­ing pre­con­ceived no­tions of what poor men­tal health looks like. We find it dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that seem­ingly happy, ‘high func­tion­ing’ in­di­vid­u­als may ac­tu­ally be suf­fer­ing from a men­tal ill­ness. There are stereo­types that those suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness are vi­o­lent, or must be­have in what is of­ten de­scribed us­ing pe­jo­ra­tive terms like ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts.’ Peo­ple of­ten wait un­til these ex­treme symp­toms of men­tal ill­ness be­come ev­i­dent be­fore tak­ing an in­di­vid­ual se­ri­ously. Peo­ple be­lieve those with men­tal ill­ness have bizarre dis­rup­tive be­hav­iour or are un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers. Peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness can be valu­able mem­bers of so­ci­ety. We ex­pect all men­tally ill peo­ple to em­body their ex­pe­ri­ences in the same ways, ways that are palat­able.

We have spent years bat­tling the stigma of men­tal dis­or­ders. Over the last five years, there has been a 35 per cent in­crease in stu­dents seek­ing help from Mcgill Men­tal Health Ser­vices, which is in­dica­tive of more stu­dents will­ing to seek help. Yet there are still peo­ple who suf­fer in si­lence, and are not al­lowed ac­cess to the re­sources they re­quire. Stu­dents have re­ported be­ing turned away from re­ceiv­ing one-on-one men­tal health ser­vices be­cause they were “too high func­tion­ing.” The strain on re­sources at Mcgill men­tal health and coun­selling ser­vices, along with bud­get al­ter­ations and struc­tural changes, have left many stu­dents ne­glected and dis­il­lu­sioned. The school is cur­rently op­er­at­ing with the be­lief that only cer­tain man­i­fes­ta­tions of men­tal ill­ness need im­me­di­ate med­i­cal at­ten­tion- this does not take into con­sid­er­a­tion stu­dents who are on the mar­gins of the com­mu­nity, or whose men­tal ill­nesses ex­hibit them­selves in un­con­ven­tional ways. Those deemed high func­tion­ing are not pri­or­i­tized un­til they ex­hibit ex­treme signs of ur­gency which mir­ror what men­tal ill­ness stereo­typ­i­cally looks like.

Des­tigma­ti­za­tion of men­tal dis­or­ders through open dis­cus­sions does not, by de­fault, al­low for their triv­i­al­iza­tion. Part of the on­go­ing stigma of men­tal ill­ness is its con­stant in­val­i­da­tion. It can be dan­ger­ous to get caught in the stigma that ho­mog­e­nizes men­tal ill­ness and de­fines it us­ing strin­gent stereo­typed ideas.

It is im­per­a­tive that stu­dents who feel they re­quire men­tal health ser­vices are not de­nied so be­cause they don’t qual­ify as ‘men­tally ill enough’.

Na­dia Boachie | The Mcgill Daily

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