Redefining our understandings of mental illness

I have a mental illness – this is something I know as a fact. But for far too long, I lived in the shadow of my own self-doubt. I pushed from my mind the notion that something was wrong beyond my control. I feared I would be met with criticism rather than support if I reached out for help. My concern is that this is a common notion among students here on campus.

From a young age, we are instilled with ideas of what constitutes a mental illness. We are briefly taught about a handful of disorders through generalized lists and examples. This instruction promises to equip us with the knowledge to identify the concrete manifestation of these disorders within our loved ones and ourselves and ensure we are all given proper treatment and support.

Often, this constructed idea of what constitutes abnormality is far too narrow. I have suspected having an anxiety disorder from a young age, but felt I did not meet the necessary ‘qualifications’ to seek treatment. My anxiety rarely gave me panic attacks, inhibited my social life or negatively impacted my schooling. Like so many others, I did not get the help I needed simply because my experience wasn’t a textbook example of mental illness.

The daily pressures of thriving as a student here on campus can cloak signs and symptoms. It is well known that our university encourages a strong work ethic and competitive behaviour in all areas of student life. This looming feeling forces students to balance high marks and packed resumes with full and rewarding social lives. Because we have a shared understanding of the pressure of student expectations, any rifts in behaviour are rationalized by peers and self as “just stress.”

Far too often disorderly behaviour is written off as a normal response to the academic pressures. A breakdown in the library is justified by essays. A fear of leaving your bed in the morning is justified by midterms. A student feeling an abrupt indifference to upcoming deadlines may pass off their behaviour as “lazy” and refuse to get help for fear they’ll be blamed for not working hard enough.

Meanwhile, amplified pressure of what constitutes success at Mt. A worsens the effects of pre-existing mental illnesses. In these cases, treatment that is so desperately needed is neglected out of a lack of recognition or fear of feeling unsuccessful. For many, this blocks the path to wellness with a perfectionism that rewards dealing with stressors independently.

The reductive view of mental illness we have been fed since puberty leads us to dissociate ourselves from the labels. As a student who thrived on achieving the expected student balance, I didn’t see myself in those limited classifications. I thought any anxiety I felt was an overreaction to stress that I could and should manage alone.

Together, we need to further the dialogue here on campus and deconstruct notions of student success. When we redefine our conception of mental health, we redefine our potential and ability to truly thrive here on campus.

Rebecca Butler