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Consider Your Mental Health

 

On February 3rd, the Student in Mind (SiM) organization hosted a Mental Health 101
conference at Concordia University in Montreal. SiM’s overarching vision is to foster a
community that is sensitive, supportive, and empathetic to issues related to mental health. In
particular, they aim to promote and disseminate knowledge about mental health, to continue the conversation, to provide practical tools and resources for anyone in need, and to empower
individuals and unite communities. For those interested in learning more about SiM, you can
find more information about their organization by following this link. Since this conference was
most likely coordinated to align with the Bell Let’s Talk event, we figured it would be a good
opportunity to also build on its momentum, and further learn about mental health issues in
Canada.


The day started off with a few introductory words and a mental health 101 session. They gave
us some of the general statistics concerning mental health issues in Canada, and gave us a
rough overview of important concepts when discussing mental health.


This was followed up by a keynote panel discussion. This discussion panel mostly focused on
students’ perspective on mental health, and available resources for students. They discussed
causes of mental health issues, statistics, historical evolution in mental health discussion and
perception, available (or lack thereof) resources in communities and potential solutions.


Afterward, we participated in the first series of workshops. Travis went to the “Food as Fuel”
workshop, while Anh-Khoi participated in the “In my own words” one. The former focused on
how students can work with established programs to ensure nutritional success. What we eat
can form the bases of our mood. By developing healthy and responsible skills in food
management we can remove some of the stresses associated with meal planning. The “In My
Own Words” aimed to train participants to change their perception of their mental health
challenges. They taught participants to frame their perception of their experience as being a
“hero” surmounting challenges, instead of a “victim” of uncontrollable hardship.


After this session, we had a light lunch, swiftly followed by a spotlight session focusing on
mental health issues experienced by aboriginal communities given by Basile Favel, a graduate
student researcher in psychology at McGill University.


Next, we participated in the second series of workshops. We both attended different workshops
again: Travis went to the “Lights, Camera, Mental Health” panel, while Anh-Khoi went to the
“Boys Don’t Cry” one. The Lights, Camera, Mental Health panel highlighted the difficulties that
can come with tv and media trying to bring up mental health. There are numerous
misinterpretations of mental health in the media, as well as the propagation of only the bad
aspects associated with mental health difficulties. Luckily, there are some strong accurate

representations of the difficulties of mental health. Media from physical to audio is able to
expand and dive deep into the real challenges people can face and maybe is better than the
sensationalized pieces of media. As for Anh-Khoi’s panel, it highlighted mental health issues
pertaining to the LGBTQ communities. It focused on mental health issues experienced by those
that would typically be perceived as male, whether they are part of the LGBTQ community or
not. The panel aims to deconstruct the social perception of masculinity, and how it affects
LGBTQ communities.


We then proceeded to the final keynote speaker panel given by Manjeet Burk of the Canadian
Alliance of Student Associates (CASA). CASA aims to lobby politicians to implement political
changes that could help tackle mental health issues in post-secondary communities. For more
information about CASA, you can follow this link.


Rounding out the day were the closing remarks followed by a resource fair giving out
information about local programs.


In the next few paragraphs, we will each describe our personal experience of the conference.

 

Anh-Khoi’s Experience


For this to be truly effective, I should support statements below with useful references.
Unfortunately, I cannot do this justice with the time available to me, nor should I as a non-
specialist, and therefore I apologize in advance. I hope whoever reads this will be curious
enough about the discussion points for them to dig deeper into the subject themselves. As a
starting point, I recommend that you visit the SiM webpage.


To start off, to appropriately discuss mental health in the context of this conference, we must
acknowledge some important statistics: over the last few decades, the number of young adults,
mostly students, claiming to have needed mental health support has steadily increased.
Therefore, this is suggestive that young adults are increasingly susceptible to mental health
problems. Given this observation, we are then motivated to act upon this information.


This may seem trivial, but to start talking about mental health, we must understand what these
two words actually mean. In my opinion, one of the most useful thing that I learned that day was
during the “mental health 101” session where we were introduced to the following graph.

 

 

Most people would only use the x-axis to describe mental health problems: you are either
healthy or in extreme cases, in some form of a crisis state. This is something that you feel
internally: you feel unsettled, or unlike yourself in a way that might require professional aid.
However, this is often insufficient to appropriately frame the discussion around mental health
since it misses the larger picture that can only be supplemented by the other axis. Talking about
mental health should include a medical perspective, one where we must discuss the symptoms,
or the ability to observe said symptoms. In many cases, you might feel uneasy, yet you cannot
express those feelings to others or yourself. This second aspect is often overlooked, but it is
arguably more essential as this affects all of us: given this knowledge, we have a responsibility
to be mindful of others that might not present diagnosable symptoms.


Ultimately, mental health is both an internal and an external issue. Biology and genetics do
affect our susceptibility to mental health problems, however environmental, cultural and social
structures must also be part of the conversation.

 

Throughout the conference, many have shared their opinions on what they believe is causing
this increase in demand for mental health services. Some have argued that social expectations
of post-secondary education have become unrealistic and that this artificially amplifies a
student’s stress level, others have accused socio-financial structures to be detrimental to our
mental health. In my opinion, the most common trend in all their discussion points is
connectedness.


While we are more connected than ever with modern social media tools, people still seem to
have difficulty feeling included in a group and/or receiving support from a community. This is
most common for students that lived in more rural areas but then moved to more urban areas
for their post-secondary studies. Many have difficulty adapting to this new environment and
struggle to find a good social support system. This was highlighted when the panelists
discussed available resources and communities on campus: while there exist many services on
university campuses, most students aren’t aware of them and/or struggle to join such
communities. The issue was further underlined in the spotlight session about aboriginal mental
health issues. Everyone has a different cultural background, and therefore to appropriately
address someone’s mental health problem, you must be able to connect with them accordingly.
For example, in the Boys don’t cry panel, the panelists mentioned that mainstream mental
health services are ill-equipped to address LBGTQ clients, since, as silly as it seems, they often
do not know how to address the client.


Having a strong community to support you is extremely beneficial for your mental health, and
this is only made possible if you can connect with them. Furthermore, if you want to help
someone deal with their mental health issues, you must be able to connect with them
appropriately in order to properly address their problems. In my opinion, the most common
cause to mental health problems mentioned throughout the conference was one’s struggle to
connect with others. Incidentally, during the writing of this blog post, a youtube video from
science popularizer Kurzgesagt was uploaded with many overlapping and more detailed
discussion on the topic.


Finally, the last important concept that I learned at the conference was that of toxic masculinity.
This refers to the stereotypical perception of male masculinity in society: strong, tall and
bearded figure, with a somewhat pompous and aggressive personality. This set of manhood
expectation has the inadvertent consequence, amongst many, of creating a stigma around
mental health aid for male figures. This is intricately tied to our societal perception about mental
health and that of masculinity as a whole. This is a concrete example of a societal structure that
can directly influence our personal mental health. This brief summary cannot do justice to the
depth of this problem, and therefore I hope that this post serves as a catalyst for you to learn
more about the topic.


Understanding the rise in need for mental health services is a substantial task. The best we can
do is attempt to identify as many factors as possible, and address them individually. I’ve only
described here a few factors that could explain this. Realistically, this is not the complete
picture, but I hope this serves as a good starting point for whoever would want to learn about

these issues, and I hope that raising awareness of these factors could help alleviate the stigma
around mental health discussions.

 

Travis’ Experience

 

It's hard to pin down exactly when during the conference that I realized I knew very little about
what it might be like as a student who needs mental health services daily, but by the end, I had
a much better understanding of why people are trying so hard to make their voices heard.


From my opening statement, I hope that anyone reading this understands that while I want to
help, and I now know more than ever before, I like my colleague am not a specialist. What that
really means is my connection to people’s stories, concerns, and conversations had during the
conference were from a place of empathy and openness to understanding. What many people
do not know or want to know is the current state of affairs of mental health and the services
provided. Some of the statistics are frightening, as more and more people need access to
mental health services that are lacking or non-existent.


Why is there such a growth in the need for mental health services? This question was
overarching throughout many panels and conversations as they tried to address some aspects
during the conference. I am going to try and convey some of the reasons that were brought up
during the meeting. One of the main reasons there is a rise in the need for services is likely due
to stigma or decreases in negative opinions. Thanks to help from numerous campaigns to
reduce the negative connotations associated with mental health, individuals suffering are finding
it easier to seek help. During the “Lights, Camera, Mental Health” panel, many of the panelists
expressed this same opinion, that thankfully in recent years, there has been a push to
destigmatize mental health issues. Of course, there are still problematic portrayals of people
suffering from mental health problems. Which is just not good. What those pieces of media fail
to represent, is the day to day struggles, while good representations in media seem to find the
balance. The best portrayals of mental health are the ones that spark conversations and that
move towards getting support to those who need it and inform those who do not.


More people are now better at understanding when they are in need of help thanks to campaign
efforts. Instead of slowly descending into crisis mode, people are recognizing the signs and
seeking helpful services. Understanding that there are different stages of mental health is
critical, as there are different levels of support needed. Not everyone needs the same level of
support and a few visits to the appropriate service could be enough for some. Other cases need
more intensive interventions to help move a person away from the crisis stage, and back to a
healthy state, but long-term support is likely needed.


Another potential reason, for increased demand among students, is the increased demands on
students to succeed. “You want to succeed in life, you better do well in your undergrad, to go to
graduate school, to get into med school”. While this example might not fit everyone, it is a
similar train of thought. One failure could be the setback a student cannot afford, not just
figuratively but literally. The pressure to pass every test and the ability to afford the courses for
that same test can be staggering for students. Working while going to school just adds to the
overall pressure and stresses.


Cultural differences are an important aspect to consider for mental health services provided,
and where there is a need. Depending on the person seeking help their background could be

different from those providing help, while not always the case there is a possibility of a
disconnect. This disconnect can leave the service ill-equipped to provide support for this
individual. At the moment, it is not feasible to have a specialized person for every single
background, but there is a need to increase the support available to give a range of coverage.
Those seeking help should feel comfortable and able to connect to those helping them.


Other reasons for the increased need for mental health services seem to stem from the lack of
community and connectedness. Connectedness should seem easy to find as we are
increasingly connected on social media, but it has unfortunately had the opposite effect for
many people. The university community might seem out of your reach if you do not connect to
those around you or are already in need of mental health services. If you live off-campus or
have active extracurricular activities that take you away from the group environment, you can
easily feel disconnected from the university community.


There is no one simple reason that we have an increased need for mental health services. It a
collection of aspects. The results are still the same, and that is that we have an increase in the
need for services.


What I focused on were some of the aspects presented during the SiM conference that tried to
answer the question “Why is there such a growth in the need for mental health services?” Of
course, there were other questions that were raised and discussed, that I could not do justice in
this blog. But overall the rise in need for services was a major focal point throughout the
conference and left the strongest impression on me. I hope that this has provided some insight
into the current issues and their context, as well as the start of a positive, more informed
conversation.

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