According to the World Health Organization, one in every four people in the world is affected by mental or neurological illness. Despite the evident commonality of this phenomena, 49 per cent of Canadians have said that they have experienced anxiety or depression at some point in their lives, but they have not seen a doctor for it. This statistic is haunting, given the concealed realities it brings to the surface – in a country with largely effective healthcare and supposedly progressive politics, half of the population’s illness goes untreated.
Through the course of this year, I have embarked on two journeys. One has been the experience of being a columnist for the Daily, during which I had the privilege of hearing and often narrating my peers’ experiences with mental illness (with their consent), and attempting to ensure that my preconceived notions do not affect the content of my articles. Another journey has been the harrowing personal experience of struggling with old illnesses and adjusting to new ones. A combination of these two factors have made me reflective of the environment I am in, and the impact of this environment on the people around me.
McGill claims to have several resources on campus to ensure that the mental health of students remains a priority. These include the Mental Health Clinic, the Eating Disorder Program, the Office for Students with Disabilities, Nightline, as well as the supposedly accommodating nature of most faculty members. However, both the findings of my research and the casual conversations I made in waiting rooms, have made one thing very clear for me – most students who avail themselves of these opportunities are doing so because something in their university environment has triggered them. The existence of triggers in a university environment does not demonstrate that university creates illness, but rather the fact that the environment can exacerbate existing disorders. The question I ask, therefore, is whether the mental health facilities on campus are sufficient to provide for students, considering the fact that the environment of university can be very detrimental or triggering in many ways.
Triggers exist all around us – some may even argue that the most important step towards recovery is learning to identify what triggers you. Triggers are rarely mild – they present themselves in the form of intense waves of anxiety, sadness, paranoia or dissociation, to name a few. Common triggers include the inability to cope with academic pressure, continuous time management issues, adopting and normalizing unhealthy eating and lifestyle choices, as well as implicit and explicit encounters with fat-shaming. First year students, like myself, are also especially vulnerable to toxic relationships and friendships, given how some students may either intend to seek out a quick fix for loneliness, or are simply seeking to check off an imaginary checklist for what is considered socially acceptable and desirable among their immediate and extended peer groups. Triggers inevitably vary among students and generalizations cannot be made about the form in which they may present themselves, or subsequently the way individuals may choose to cope with them.For instance, this can be illustrated by the different reactions people have to medication, as I have explored in one of my previous articles. While some people are able to adjust without difficulty and begin reacting positively to their medication, others may take weeks to adjust to the side effects, or never be able to adjust properly to them at all.
It is important to realize that progress will only come as a result of making the consistent effort to ensure that you do not demonize your own mental illness.
It feels to me like the mental health facilities on campus place more of an emphasis on the importance of medication and psychiatric care than they do on psychological care and therapy. Several of the survey responses I received from my peers over the course of research for my articles, for example, expressed dissatisfaction at the fact that their psychiatrists sometimes changed or increased their medication despite their discomfort or hesitance.
My friend told me about how recently, she broke down during a session with her psychiatrist, who was left at a loss for what to do, because although they can prescribe medication, it is neither their job description nor their expertise to be able to provide the emotional support or engage in discussions about improvement and recovery. On the contrary, this is a job only a therapist or psychologist can adequately perform. Although many students often only see psychiatrists, it is imperative to remember that holistic recovery can only be achieved when all dimensions of the issue are dealt with.
It is important to remember that some mental illnesses are far more normalized than others. These include anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. While all mental illnesses are stigmatized to a great degree, other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorder, and schizophrenia, to name a few, are far less normalized, in part perhaps due to the fact that people consider them less common. Moreover, because these mental illnesses are not spoken of as much, it is difficult to understand how they might be impacting students in a university environment.
As a result, my column had a comparatively restricted focus, because I could not hope to do justice to the experiences of individuals with certain illnesses without making unjust generalizations. However, four months into the journey and I can safely say that the research this column required enabled me to explore previously uncharted territories, educating me further about the illnesses that I assumed I knew all about. However, it also brought my attention to the fact that McGill’s mental health facilities still need significant reform and improvement to ensure that the toll that a university environment has on the mental health of students can be addressed. Ultimately, the mere existence of these institutions is not enough to guarantee that the mental health of students will be catered to. If McGill really claims to care for its students, it needs to step up and meet the challenge of supporting all the students across its campus who have mental health needs – until then, its work is insufficient, and its promises hollow.
By working as a columnist for the Daily, I hope I am doing my part (although an insignificant one in the grand scheme of things) towards facilitating a healthy dialogue regarding mental illness and destigmatization. For every friend, acquaintance, or relative I made uncomfortable by vulnerably talking about my mental illness, I can only hope that there is someone out there who has been driven to engage in an honest and unafraid dialogue about their illness.