Commentary  AUS Council: Whose Mental Health is it, Anyway?

On the Emotional Toll of Wilfully Dodging Democracy

In working as one of two Mental Health Commissioners at SSMU, one of the most frustrating constants I encounter is the opportunistic mobilization of mental health rhetoric. We see this in the consumerist appropriation of self-care, the disingenuous corporate “activism” which obscures the dehumanization of workers, or any other number of instances. Unfortunately, this was directly exemplified in the February 14 session of AUS Legislative Council.

With the proliferation of mental health discourses on campus, it is easy to forget about mental illness. We’ve heard it ad nauseam: one in five Canadians has a mental illness, but five in five Canadians have mental health. Yet dealing with the garden-variety ups and downs of student life is easier than addressing the traumas and struggles of the mentally ill – particularly for those of us who are racialized, who are queer, who are working-class. This truism also obscures the crucial link between marginalization and compromised mental welfare.

I do not speak on behalf of my co-Commissioner, nor do I represent the views of the VP Student Life or the SSMU as a whole. I feel strongly about the incidents and rhetoric of this session of Council because of my professional background in mental health advocacy. My positions are also informed by my own experience as a racialized person, as a Muslim, and as someone who lives and copes with severe mental illness.

Yet dealing with the garden-variety ups and downs of student life is easier than addressing the traumas and struggles of the mentally ill – particularly for those of us who are racialized, who are queer, who are working-class.

On January 30, the AUS Legislative Council voted against approving additional fees for POLI 339, a comparative politics summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The AUS Executive Committee subsequently overturned this ruling through a secret Facebook vote, which prompted an investigation by the AUS Secretary General. During the February 14 session of Council, Arts Representative Andrew Figueiredo admitted to having pressured members of the AUS Executive Committee to vote to overturn the Legislative Council’s initial ruling. Within the scope of an apology for these actions, he also mentioned that his mental health had suffered due to recent incidents. I have no interest in undermining the legitimacy of Councillor Figueiredo’s claims; to be clear, I emphatically do not believe that he is lying about having suffered emotionally.

It is perhaps self-evident that our mental welfare is shaped by external factors. In an environment where students are expected to burn themselves out for the sake of building their credentials and succeeding academically, professional and social commitments weigh on us. When these commitments are politically loaded – as this particular issue was – this weight increases exponentially. Undoubtedly, many AUS Councillors and Executives can attest to this.

However, these external factors can transcend the petty bourgeois minutiae of student life. Experiences of marginalization, social exclusion, and political violence destabilize mental health significantly. For example, women living in poverty (who are disproportionately racialized) are far more likely to display depressive symptoms. Black women deal with extensive violence at the hands of the medical establishment, and are often limited in their access to care. Notably, Palestinians in the occupied territories face post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of mental illness at disproportionately high rates. Indeed, mental health and illness are inextricable from the realities of racism, settler-colonialism, misogyny, and capitalist exploitation.

Elected political representatives, like the rest of us, experience mental health challenges. However, they also have responsibilities to their constituents: transparency, honesty, and a commitment to democratic process.

Elected political representatives, like the rest of us, experience mental health challenges. However, they also have responsibilities to their constituents: transparency, honesty, and a commitment to democratic process. When they are elected, they are entrusted with fulfilling these responsibilities in good faith. To fail on these fronts – and to create a hostile and coercive professional environment for your colleagues – is fair grounds for criticism (and impeachment, but let’s table that for now). Perhaps if one comes under heat for having engaged in what comes down to workplace bullying and manipulation, it is entirely justified. Student politics may impact your emotional welfare, but you still have a responsibility to both your constituents and to the individuals that you have harmed. Compromised mental health is not an excuse for coercion, manipulation, and professional dishonesty.

We should also consider how these invocations of mental health undermine the constant delegitimization and dismissal faced by marginalized Council members. Both the AUS President and VP Academic were visibly distraught during the Council meeting, particularly as they spoke about the hostility that they faced during this incident. These two individuals also formed a minority within the Executive, as they both publicly shared that they voted “no” on circumventing the AUS Council and on overturning the initial decision. It is telling that two visibly racialized women felt the weight of this mistreatment. It is telling that their emotional welfare is not being publicly prioritized in the same way as Figueiredo’s. Last year, during campaigns, Councillor Figueiredo was criticized for his tendency to “make women uncomfortable.” Isn’t that a mental health concern? Whose mental health do we value? Who can mobilize this language and be taken seriously? Isn’t the mental health of Palestinian students compromised by colonial violence? Why is their distress met with ridicule, with dismissal, with carelessness?

It is telling that two visibly racialized women felt the weight of this mistreatment. It is telling that their emotional welfare is not being publicly prioritized in the same way as Figueiredo’s.

To be clear: Councillor Figueiredo should resign immediately, as should any other executives who chose to both circumvent an emergency AUS Council meeting and to overturn the original vote. Failing this, impeachment is necessary. When it comes to accountability, talk is cheap. We should learn from our various representative associations’ past missteps where misogyny and racism are concerned, and move towards changing the culture which enables these abuses of power.