Mental health advocacy: more than fighting stigma

Maclean’s annual rankings of primarily undergraduate universities ranked Mount Allison’s mental health services an appalling 19th among the 19 universities listed. Beyond doubt, there will be steps taken by the MASU and the Mt. A administration to act on this. The urgent need of improved mental health services will be unquestioned on paper, but the lens through which the university administration evaluates “adequate” measures to address mental health will likely be incompatible with the realities of human health.

If there is one thing we can learn from the Mt. A faculty strike of 2014, or the more recent Harvard strike, it’s that now more than ever, universities are a business first. The privatization of higher education has heavily oriented research and policy toward profitability,  exacerbating inequalities rather than rallying the vanguard of societal change.

I had the opportunity last week to hear the experiences of a few Mt. A students living with mental illness at Change Your Mind’s Elephant in the Room. With every story, it became clearer that I could never configure a “mental health strategy” on my own for the variety of experiences and concerns that exist in this community. By the end of the event, I was reminded of how important it is to hear the experiences of others living with mental illness, but I was also left somewhat disappointed. The state of Mt. A’s mental health services had not been mentioned once, and although it wasn’t under the purview of Change Your Mind’s goals that night, it should have been.

Sympathy and awareness are necessary components to any advocacy, but they can be weaponized, sometimes inadvertently, against vulnerable communities. Corporations like Bell, Apple and even BP have all made visible efforts to “raise awareness” toward issues such as mental health, LGBTQ rights and environmental responsibility. Their op-eds and campaigns paint an image that conveniently masks institutionalized exploitation and discrimination. Meanwhile, customers looking for a product branded with an ethical spin have their feelings of guilt satiated, knowing they purchased a product from a company owned by someone who said some nice things they agreed with.

This is what the Mt. A community must be wary of and actively oppose. It may be bad for business that Mt. A places last in a national mental health services ranking, but the business model of the university is also incongruous with providing the substantial services needed. Students come to this school at a vulnerable and formative time in their lives, often stripped of support systems they previously relied on. Young adults are the age cohort with the highest rate of attempted suicide, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadians aged 20 to 24. If Mt. A’s services and policy are to be changed, it must be to an extent that can contend with this reality.

I admire the courage of students who come forward with their experiences, but we cannot allow our stories to be co-opted into superficial policy changes that take on a mere appearance of responsibility.

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