The difference between talking about depression and handing out apples
Hello Super Heroes!
Today I want to talk about an interesting program thats arising on university campuses across canada. As mental health becomes a focus for many campuses, they are adapting what they call “mental health and wellness plans”. Its an interesting name because mental illness and mental wellness are not the same thing. By creating content about mental wellness (i.e. sleeping better, eating better, reducing stress by planning ahead etc) and giving the content to students many university campuses claim to have a mental health plan. At my university, the university of waterloo in Ontario, we definitely are very guilty of this. I remember speaking to a lady at health services and she told me did not want to adapt an upcoming mental health program because the awareness programs weren’t working. As an active student on campus, I was really confused. What awareness program? Even as a peer health educator at UW health services I did not see any awareness plan. We had one board about mental illness that was rarely used when we spoke at events. We had a great wellness plan, but than I realized she thought they were the same. This is where the problem lies…. having a wellness plan does not mean you have a mental illness awareness plan. This is not to say that wellness plans aren’t important, they very much are. But regardless of how many preventative measures we take we will always have students with mental illnesses entering or attending university. We need to create healthy plans to talk about mental illness on campus. To have a continued dialogue about mental illness, not just a designated day or in a response to a recent suicide. These conversations are awkward, trust me, no one knows that as well as I do. But students need to have resources and a school that is trying to have this conversation so they feel safer in confronting their issues when they are so much to deal with. We can’t just assume that handing out apples and stress information is equal to talking about depression. As a speaker for peer health education, I am usually one of the only lived experience speakers at our events. To be honest, I dont think my story belongs there most times…. Stress, sleep and eating well are worlds away from talking about depression. I always felt like my story was a rude awakening to students who had heard an evening of PG stories. At that point, I realized that there needs to be two plans, in a way it feels like trying to make a square fit into a circle, at some point you need to just give up and realize they are too different to go hand and hand. That being said they compliment each other, mental wellness is always important especially for those living with mental illness, and learning about mental illness is great even for those not suffering as it helps them be able to talk about the subject with a friend if need be.
A true mental illness awareness plan at university involves youth at every step, not just a token youth on a council. By having only a token youth, that youth has so much pressure to try and represent over 20,000 students. It’s just not possible. When creating content and programs we need to make sure that they resonate with young people, not what older people think they would have liked when they are young. I like asking administrators if they would want a youth telling them about adult mental health…. they usually look confused… and I say, because thats what you are doing. You are talking for a group of people that you can’t possibly properly represent. Youth is an ever changing generation, and even I at the age of 23, could not accurately represent a 13 year old. But knowing that, when i work with content meant for that age group, I always reach out and offer meaningful engagement. And to be honest… it is not that hard. Proper mental health awareness plans also involve researching how to talk about mental illness in a positive and hopeful light, with the right mix of science and story so it does not feel like a lecture. It shows people with mental illnesses who have accomplished great things and are not the people you expect they would be. They involve strong peer to peer programs, like that available at sherdain, that allow peers to talk to each other about the journey of mental health. They involve educating professors about mental health and giving them sensitivity training so they don’t do things like calling students crazy infront of a class of over 100 people. These plans are a lot of work, but not impossible. Many student run organizations are trying to implement them across Canada as we speak but we won’t cause the change needed unless we have the backing of the whole university.
In the end, we have a lot of great people working in mental health on campuses across Canada, but we have a long way to go. We need to recognize the key differences here and plan accordingly. Wellness is great but as my friend put it “giving me just a wellness plan ( someone suffering depression) a is kind of like showing a cancer patient how to exercise and assuming that will be enough, we need so much more than just a bandaid.”