Stop Picking at Low-Hanging Fruit (re: Mental Health Advocacy is Shit)

This article is a response to Jon Zilinski’s October 25 editorial, “Mental Health Advocacy is Shit.”

“Shit” is too strong a word to describe mental health advocacy; a more fitting assessment of the movement would be “low-hanging fruit pickers.” Jon has a point: getting people to talk about it can only do so much. Sure, stigma is still a problem — but mental health advocates have a habit of pointing towards a supposed “stigma” without specifying or explaining what in particular is being stigmatized, and what we can do to curb it. Want to be an effective mental health advocate? Stop picking at low-hanging fruit.

“Mental health” is in danger of becoming a buzzword. Mental health advocates need to stop tossing it around in hopes of winning brownie points with the general student populace. Instead, we need to start looking at the myriad of other issues that factor into the complex and multifaceted umbrella-term that is “mental health advocacy.”

There’s a difference between raising “awareness” and raising “education.” Raising awareness can only do so much when misconceptions about mental illness still run rampant. This is how that “grey area” is formed, resulting in many students who know about mental illness but don’t understand it.

Many still think “depression” is synonymous with “sadness.” And that’s technically correct — from a Merriam-Webster standpoint. But if you were to tell me that you’re “depressed” because you don’t have time to binge-watch the new Luke Cage series, I would call you out on your casual insensitivity. There is also a wide array of mental illnesses that don’t get as much attention: developmental disorders (autism, ADHD), personality disorders, as well as the gamut of anxiety-related disorders (excoriation disorder and OCD), to name a few.

As far as stigma goes, one area to zone in on is labeling. Psychiatric labels (and their connotations) are one of the biggest obstacles towards seeking help. Self-labeling is a problem even less people talk about. When someone receives a psychiatric diagnosis, it influences their self-image. At best, it increases self-awareness and motivates positive change; at worst, a diagnosis — or misdiagnosis — leads to a vicious cycle of negative feedback and self-inhibition. This also applies to cases in which people label themselves due to sociocultural influences (like their friends and the media), so more often than not, self-labeling becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You are not your diagnosis.

No two individuals with the same diagnosis are going to warrant the same treatment. And yet, we live in a culture that holds the medicalization of mental illness to high regard — a system that inevitably veers towards a one-size-fits-all standard. While psychiatry is a tried-and-true method, there are many who don’t benefit from this approach. In many cases, medication does more harm than good.

Psychiatry, by design, takes a somewhat objective, systematic approach to treating mental illness. This lends itself to non-humanistic tendencies — namely, a tendency to pay more attention to symptoms than the person. This effectively reduces a complex human being to a case study.

The problems inherent in the psychiatric model described above are further exacerbated by the overcrowding of the system with new patients. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for physicians to treat patients on a case-by-case basis. Most people require specialized action plans tailor-made to fit their needs.

Many of the action plans given by psychiatrists can be summarized as follows: “Take these meds for a month, see how you feel, then get back to me. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try another one.”

Say what you want about the pharmaceutical industry, but something about implementing trial-and-error methodology seems off to me. Throw in the fact that these medications have the potential to fundamentally alter your brain chemistry — possibly in adverse and unpredictable ways — then your treatment plan is comparable to playing roulette with your brain chemistry.

University students especially can’t afford to experiment with their brain chemistry — not when faced with everything that’s demanded of them on a daily basis.

If the mainstream consensus is that the pharmaceutical route is the first and only resort to mental health treatment — downplaying the benefits of simple lifestyle changes that involve diet, exercise, etc. — then something is terribly wrong.

The medical route needs to be knocked off its pedestal — and mental health advocates need to further promote the alternatives. What has worked for me, for example, has been implementing major lifestyle changes. I’ve also greatly benefited from counselling, and, more recently, from changing my diet under the guidance of a naturopath.

Diet remains one of the most overlooked aspects of supporting one’s mental health. (Shout-out to probiotics.) Others tout the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness meditation. These practices put the agency back in the hands of the individual — and need to be advocated for more strongly and more often.

Ultimately, any advice or treatment you get from any expert should be regarded as guidance more than anything. Our health-care professionals are human beings too, prone to error just like everyone else. When it comes to your mental health, you are the expert on yourself.

Mental health advocacy in general has been successful in raising awareness and encouraging people to seek help (which is still important), but it needs to broaden its focus towards other important aspects of this complex and wide-ranging issue. Stop picking at low-hanging fruit: you’re not saying anything we haven’t heard a million times before.

Actions speak louder than buzzwords.