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.