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.