Editorial: We need to re-politicize mental health on campus

While improving mental health services is welcomed and appreciated, we should be questioning why mental health supports are so high in demand in the first place

As many of us know, mental health services are in high demand at the University of Alberta. While we’re seeing positive progress when it comes to helping students with their mental health and mental illnesses, we haven’t quite taken the stressful environment of the university to task.

In university discourse, we talk at length about raising mental health awareness, about the merits of self-care and learning to recognize each other’s struggling moments. This work is valuable in its own right, but in my own experience, many students still don’t end up seeking out help for mental health issues.

While awareness campaigns have likely lessened the stigma of seeking out help, students are still faced with navigating what can be a smorgasbord of resources, depending on how many things are going on in their life. Combine this with copious resource lists and a lack of mental health education, and students may become completely lost as to what to do.

Even if students take the plunge and wade through each individual choice and guessing which one may or may not work for them, they’re likely to have an incredibly frustrating experience that deters them from seeking help at all.

We may soon have a solution to this problem. The Dean of Students has put forward a new initiative to help students seek resources on campus. Called the ACCESS Outreach Team, the group tables at various high-traffic areas on campus, being available to talk with students about any of their concerns related to school, mental health, and intersections between the two.

The team acts as a kind of middleman, providing students with both a place to talk and an idea of where to go next if they need one. The team hopes that the service will help catch issues before they compound into more serious ones, as well as help ease pressure on other services like counselling.

This kind of service is a great step forward for bridging the gap between awareness and education, between call and action, something that many of my fellow students have complained has been absent in campus mental health initiatives.

A couple of years ago, I came to a point where I felt I needed to seek out help on campus. I already had a leg up when it came to knowing what services were available to me, given the training I had done in order to do my job as a Resident Assistant. I knew about places like the Peer Support Centre and Counseling and Clinical Services, as well as the various tutoring services on campus as well.

After much anxious waffling and uncertainty about what to do, I settled on going to Counseling and Clinical Services over something like the Peer Support Centre, as I felt that what I was going through would require more than a kind ear to hear me out.

When I attended my initial consultation I wasn’t deemed to be in a place where one-on-one counselling was required, which was a fair assessment given the demand at the clinic and the issue I was working through.

I wasn’t totally left out in the cold, however; the nurse suggested that I could participate in group therapy program at the clinic, which I gladly accepted and found incredibly conducive to my return to optimal mental health.

In my student mental health journey, I consider myself extremely lucky. I was someone who had fairly comprehensive knowledge about the services on campus, as well as a supportive social network who encouraged me to seek out help.

While second-year me would’ve jumped at the chance to talk to ACCESS Outreach Team and probably gotten equally helpful directions on what to do, and I applaud the work being done to help students seek out resources, the underlying question of why mental health services are so high in demand remains unanswered.

The late cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote in his book Capitalist Realism that capitalism treats mental health “as if it were a natural fact, like weather.” In our late-capitalist society, poor mental health, as well as mental illness, are seen to be merely anomalies that can be easily treated by medication or easy coping mechanisms. 

Fisher argues, and I concur, that capitalism has privatized mental health over the last 30 years, divorcing socio-political factors from having any causal relationship to mental illness or poor mental health. This fits into the individualizing logic of neoliberalism, which atomizes and incentives each of us to be responsible only for what happens to ourselves.

University, by its very nature, is stressful, isolating, and meritocratic. We compete with others for high GPAs, pulling our hair out to get into limited spots for scholarships or grad school programs. We’ve all have conversations with our friends about this; we all know we’re in the same boat, under varying but similar stress, but many of us are still struggling alone despite this.

Fisher asks a poignant question, one that runs through my head often when mental health awareness campaigns cycle through our campus: “How has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?”

While asking for mental health services is important to alleviating suffering now, we need to question why those services are in demand so much on campus. We need to re-politicize mental health and question why we take the stress of university as a given fact.

Andrew McWhinney

Andrew McWhinney is a fifth-year English and political science combined honors student, as well as The Gateway's 2019-20 Editor-in-Chief. He was previously The Gateway's 2018-19 Opinion Editor. An aspiring journalist with too many opinions, he's a big fan of political theory, hip-hop, and being alive.

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