In my four years at Mount Allison, I have watched our campus develop more comfort around discussing mental health and illness. I’ve noticed a shift in the discourse from mental health and illness to mental wellness, and I am concerned that this move does not serve students’ best interests. Both the MoodCheck app and the draft Student Affairs mental health strategy exemplify this discourse of mental wellness.
I am suspicious of the MoodCheck app and its accompanying promotional campaign for several reasons. I question why this app – but not others – is being so intensely promoted, what is done with the information it collects, why the focus seems to be on merely using the app rather than on the benefits of mindfulness and, most of all, why universities are competing against each other for the greatest app usage and why this competition is tied to funding for a campus mental wellness initiative.
However, I am more troubled by the neoliberal ideology underpinning the app and its promotion. Though there are many benefits to mindfulness as well as to using apps to promote mental health – benefits like reducing barriers such as geographic location, finances and the obligation of disclosure to access support – I caution against seeing apps as replacements for actual psychiatric services.
I question why the enthusiasm Mt. A has shown for initiatives like Elephant in the Room, Mental Health Champions, or the MoodCheck app is never mirrored by equal enthusiasm and advocacy for providing accessible psychiatric services here.
A similar individualized, neoliberal rhetoric, which at times borders on victim-blaming, can be found in the new student affairs Mental Health Strategy. There is a glaring absence of acknowledgement of intersectionality – save for a few mentions of indigenous students – and the language employed in the strategy is also paternalistic. Words like “resilience,” “coping,” “adapting,” “self-regulating” and “emotions-management” are featured prominently, and student needs are misleadingly labelled student “demands.” Mental illness is not contextualized, recognizing students must deal with the pressures of facing a bleak and competitive job market, rising tuition and increasing debt, and a culture of perfectionism, over-achievement and over-involvement uniquely pervasive at Mt. A. It is demeaning to read that my mental health would be improved if only I had better skills in “self-soothing.” I feel as though I am being asked to self-discipline not for my own good, but rather to prevent me from becoming another “burden” on the system.
Both the MoodCheck App and forthcoming student affairs Mental Health Strategy are informed by the idea of mental wellness. The problem is not with the concept of mental wellness itself, but rather with its replacement of conversation about mental illness. Mental wellness is imbued with ableist and sanist ideas of self-discipline and self/emotion management. By choosing the right activities and attitudes, we are told we also choose to be happy and healthy, or mentally well. This discourse erases those who are unable to be these things due to both their brain chemistry and situational experiences and interactions. Painting mental wellness as a matter of choice, determination and persistence runs the risk of calling those with mental illnesses responsible for their ill health. Though sleep, exercise, eating healthy foods and being mindful are beneficial to all, they are ultimately not replacements for actual psychiatric services, and moreover are harder to do when dealing with mental illnesses like depression.
I urge the university to replace the mental wellness discourse with serious conversations about mental illness, its structural causes and catalysts, and how it impacts our community as a whole. Let’s ask how being mindful of your mood will change the scheduling of all of your midterms during the same week. Let’s question how you can be expected to stay mentally well when you experience daily microaggressions, or worry about losing your scholarship if you take a reduced course load or a leave of absence. Let’s talk about how you need to pay for assessments to get the diagnoses necessary to receive formal accommodations. Let’s address how every time we open Mt. A’s website we are bombarded by the resumes of Bell Scholars, Rhodes Scholars and athletes, and how this makes people like me over-commit ourselves to measure up to Mt. A’s definition of success. Most of all, I want to talk about how it has felt to study here for four years without being able to access the counselling and psychiatric help I need. So no, I won’t be helping us win the MoodCheck Challenge. My mood would be infinitely improved if I were able to access the services I need.
In my opinion, turning the focus to “mental wellness” without first addressing “mental illness” is about as asinine as focusing on a pie you want to bake without looking at any instructions or ingredients – hell, without even acknowledging that these components are crucial to the end result.
I think mental wellness can be a good motivator and can perhaps provide a scale with which to visually conceptualize or measure your mental state, but ultimately it is an end goal and you have to deal with the journey first. And that journey is full of obstacles that first require RECOGNITION before a solution can be formed.
A huge problem, I think, is that while the discourse on mental health has most certainly improved over the years, it also kind of… hasn’t? We’re talking about it, but are we REALLY talking about it? It’s another area where we’ve jumped the gun; first we focus on the end goal instead of the journey, and then within the journey we focus on the solutions to the obstacles as opposed to the obstacles themselves. We’re dooming ourselves to failure.
I understand the desire to be motivational and the need to at least try to be positive or productive or SOMETHING, but isn’t that just a result of the social pressure we feel to be that way? Sometimes before I talk about the techniques I use to help when I’m feeling suicidal, I just want to talk about feeling suicidal.
I want to talk about how I used to feel like the worst person on earth when cars had to wait for me to cross the street because I felt that my being alive near other people and affecting them for all of two seconds put the burden of their lost time because of me on my shoulders. I want to talk about how I’d wish I’d never been born so that I didn’t have all these people whom I’ve affected (for better or worse) and whom would be aware (for better or worse) of my absence if I died. I want to talk about how intensely possessive I feel about my suicide – MY suicide. How intensely personal it feels, and how it comforts me at times because it’s always, always there. Suicide is ALWAYS an option.
And while I understand that these topics of conversation are difficult to have and express a wide array of views that may be interpreted as counterproductive, they’re also a form of validation. This is how I feel. This is what it is. It is REAL, put into the world as actual words. I don’t want to talk about how to be better in stressful situations because I’m still stuck trying to figure out HOW TO BE. Nevermind “stressful” situations, I have days where I feel guilty for BREATHING. I can’t be productive yet because I am literally struggling with existing.
Maybe a lot of people will disagree with me, and that’s fine if what you’re doing works for you, but the current atmosphere in regards to any sort of mental health community seems to be all about shielding ourselves from feeling certain ways and it just seems like it can’t ever end well. All the techniques in the world can’t help us feel only the things we want to feel and eradicate anything else. “Trigger warnings” are not productive, in my opinion – they’re just turning a blind eye. You’re not trying to change the thing that’s upsetting – sometimes it’s IMPOSSIBLE to change the thing that’s upsetting. But that doesn’t mean you can just not deal with it ever and be fine that way? Eventually, you will likely encounter it again – it’s an obstacle in the journey. You have to face it to fix it.
And “techniques to help with stress” are only useful if you are capable of, say, getting out of bed – which was never the case for me when I was at my worst. When I supposedly “needed it most.” And it took me a long time and a lot of purposeful analysis to realize that the problem wasn’t getting out of bed; the problem was that I wanted to lie there until I DIED. The solution wasn’t just “get out of bed, idiot,” it was “holy crap, why am I thinking this way, something is wrong, my brain is literally not doing its job of keeping me alive, I am sick and need help.”
If you never face the obstacle – you just close your eyes upon reaching it – you will never form a solution. Mental wellness becomes unreachable. We need to talk about the problem before jumping to solutions. Or at least that’s been my personal experience. You can’t talk about getting better until you talk about being sick. Signs, symptoms, feelings, failures. We don’t have to be encouraging to one another 24/7 – sometimes it’s enough just to BE.