Last week, a group of students and faculty members at Queen’s University gathered to talk about mental health. It wasn’t a meeting organized by the administration. Instead, it was spearheaded by a small group of students and faculty within the Philosophy Department. Their goal was simple: to create a safe space for the university community to gather, connect, and discuss their questions about mental health and mental illness, while sharing their own experiences.
Over the course of two hours, they managed to do what we should all be doing more often: championing honest dialogue about mental health. With Feb. 12 being Bell Let’s Talk Day, it seems as good a time to widen that conversation further. As mental health becomes an increasingly important issue on campuses across this country, it’s been on my mind, and that of other university leaders, a great deal. The numbers speak for themselves, indicating that one in four university or college-aged Canadians will experience stress, anxiety, or depression, among other symptoms. Many students also suffer from more serious forms of mental illness that predate their arrival at university.
But as post-secondary institutions work to accommodate this growing number of students who need mental health support, we’re also having to contend with our critics: the ones who charge that in doing so, we’re infantilizing them – lowering the bar rather than asking them to step up to the challenges and responsibilities that come with adulthood. This is not at all what universities are doing. Stress is, of course, a fact of life in today’s hectic, information-saturated world, and it’s always, been present in student life (it was just as present when I was an undergraduate 35 years ago). It’s important to differentiate, however, between the routine stress that most of us will experience at one time or another, and the kinds that can be chronic, debilitating, and ultimately lead to illness. For whatever reason, too many of our young people are living with the latter – ongoing stress and anxiety that keeps them from reaching their full potential. Our institutions need to remove unnecessary stressors that contribute nothing to the learning experience; we need to be supportive, and can do so without any ‘dumbing down’ as it’s been called. That’s one thing we need to be talking about.
We also need to be talking about stigma. Many people who struggle with mental illness will tell you that the hardest part is not the effects of the illness, but the stigma that goes along with it. That’s the reason that two-thirds of Canadians who do experience mental illness won’t get help. They won’t even talk about their situation. That’s exactly why we all need to keep talking.
Even better, it’s time to start doing. Last February, a $1-million dollar gift from Bell helped us at Queen’s to tackle the issue of stigma through increased research. We created the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair, appointing Dr. Heather Stuart to take on the post. Ms. Stuart – who, incidentally, took part in last week’s on-campus discussion about mental health – has spent the last year deepening her research in stigma reduction while raising awareness about the significance of mental health and mental health research. We’re truly grateful to have Dr. Stuart in our midst, keeping the conversation going.
In the fall, our Principal’s Commission on Mental Health was able to present me with their final report for a university-wide strategy for tackling mental health issues on campus. After meeting weekly for over a year, the commission came up with 116 recommendations designed to promote the well-being and success of every Queen’s student. We now have a roadmap that will help us more effectively tackle mental illness on campus and which, I hope, will provide guidance to other post-secondary institutions many of which, as I mentioned, face the same challenges.
Most significantly, that report has been our way to get people thinking and - again -talking about the question of mental health on campus and beyond. There is no doubt that the issues are complicated and sometimes, quite sensitive but we owe it to our children, our young adults, our communities and ourselves to take them on. Today, and every day forward, let’s talk about it, but let’s do something, too.
Daniel Woolf is the principal and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and a Professor in its Department of History.