Commentary  Department of English Studies Letter in response to the “hygiène de vie” philosophy

This is a letter from the Department of English Students’ Association (DESA) executive. We believe the recent developments in mental health discussions on campus are in need of recognition and action on the levels of department and faculty alike. In his interview, Ollivier Dyens invites students to “find [him] a solution and [he’s] more than happy to consider it”. DESA believes an excellent first step to finding a solution is avoiding ignorance towards the issue at hand.

DESA writes in response to the philosophy of “hygiène de vie”, a concept involving language that invokes notions of cleanliness, order, maintenance, and routine. Mental health and mental illness are often reduced to matters of reorganization and purification – if the blatantly negative “toxins” are removed from an individual’s system, the individual will improve and return to some understood normalcy and functionality. Several concerns arise with regard to this stigma, a stigma that is echoed in the simplistic “hygiène de vie” approach.

A dialogue foregrounding supposed purification defines its subjects as entities that are dirty. I am lapsing into metaphoric prose here, but my point is that an approach purporting that an individual’s problems can be solved merely by removing certain habits and substances is a reductive blame-game.

This blame-game avoids considering the potential (and often, certain) negative effects of habit change. It denies the trials of an adjustment period. It removes the individual from the context which may have contributed to the development of these habits in the first place. It allows external factors – in this case, academic institutions – to avoid taking responsibility for the environment that leads to these habits. It assumes that individuals are affected similarly by such external factors; in this case, it erases social inequalities and dilutes oppression by pretending that all students experience McGill in the same way. It thus implies an impossible universal “Student Experience” upon which a universal “hygiène de vie” can be applied. It allows institutions to categorize certain habits as solely “unhealthy” rather than acknowledge them as coping mechanisms and thereby acknowledge the conditions responsible for these behaviours. It leans upon the notion that mental illness and mental health can be addressed and tweaked through consumption and habits alone. It places the individual subject to an ableist understanding of “normalcy” by prioritizing functionality. It allows for “laziness” and “incapacity” to be synonyms. It polarizes the community into the mentally fit and the mentally unfit, a dichotomy that is drastically misrepresentative for all individuals. It groups all mental illness into one body of experience, which in turn silences the suffering of different groups and nullifies the very specificities that need addressing. It permits for the institution to boast equality and consideration without accepting its own contribution to this impossibility.

This is not to say that an individual has no power over themselves or their own lives. This is also not denying that changing certain habits can help an individual’s well-being. This is saying, however, that mental health is not so linear.

We, the Department of English Students’ Association, acknowledge the positive potential of the notions such as initiative, reorganization, and reducing one’s indulgences, and would highly encourage the Deputy Provost to apply them to his own perspective. Telling students to eat better, pet some dogs, and do more yoga, is lazy. Putting full blame on students for their subsistence in an environment not totally under their control is irresponsible. The belief that it would lead to some pacifying change on campus is indulgent and immature.

With regard to Dyens’ aforementioned search for a solution, DESA is in the process of creating its own departmental mental health project. After we poll our constituency on an anonymous submissions basis, we intend to compile the results in a formal report that we can use to adjust the resources that we as an executive can provide or point people towards. Moreover, we will incorporate our findings into how we host our events, what kind of services we provide, and how we address our constituency. We also aim to present this body of information to our faculty, and ideally implement this kind of mental health departmental “check-up” every other year.

We look forward to working with other departments on extending this project. Several departments including Law, Engineering, and Medicine have implemented such initiatives already, and we believe this kind of involvement should manifest itself in student associations in the Arts too. We acknowledge the limitations of categorizing students by departments, but we hope that by creating a base group of information, we can start a conversation that can begin to focus increasingly towards the individual. Although we, as an executive team, cannot take the place of the one-on-one resources lacking in our system (despite the fact that they would be and have been one of the most impactful resources offered), we can be conscious of our role within our department as resource-providers.

DESA welcomes further conversation, questions, or concerns. We also invite other student associations to consider what actions they can take to better respond to the needs of their constituency.

Lastly, I extend profound gratitude to my teammates, who entrusted me with the writing of this letter. I thank them for their comments, their reflections, their participation, and their dedication to this cause.

Sincerely, and sending warmth,

Danijela Stojkovic – DESA President
Thomas MacDonald – Vice President External
Emily Szpiro – Vice President Internal
Sanjna Navani – Literature Stream Representative
Alexandra Toutant – Vice President Finance
Emily A. Mernin – Vice President Academic
Atusa Mehrasa – Cultural Studies Representative
Dorothy Poon – U1 Representative
Frederique Blanchard – Drama and Theatre Representative
Zoe Shaw – Vice President Events
Sylvie Schwartz – Vice President Journals & Affiliates
Anisah Shah – Vice President Communications