In many ways, this week’s feature on student health and well being is the most important project that I’ve ever had the privilege of being involved with. One of my goals entering this year as features editor was to use the section as a resource for the discussion of issues that shape and influence the lives of students at the University of Manitoba and beyond. In this edition of the Manitoban, we have pulled together a section that addresses a wide variety of such issues. In particular, I believe Ashley Gaboury’s piece on mental health helps fill a glaring void in the discussion of overall student well being and is an article that cannot be missed.
Gaboury addresses a very underappreciated component of overall well-being, the component of mental health. Through her conversations with experts in the fields of psychiatry and sociology, she has presented some very insightful and crucially important information regarding students’ mental health. For instance, she notes that while mental illness is a segment of mental health concern, there are many people who suffer from low mental well-being without the presence of a mental illness.
Of course, the twin issues of mental illness and mental well-being represent some of society’s last remaining taboos. Since many people are reluctant to discuss mental health, you may think that it is only a minor issue, however, the statistics would suggest otherwise. According to the Canadian Mental Health Commission (CMHC), nearly seven million people will need help for a mental health issue this year alone, while every day 500,000 Canadians stay home from work as a result of psychiatric problems. A proper awareness of mental health issues is especially important for young people and students because, as Gaboury notes, a majority of psychiatric problems first appear during adolescence or early adulthood.
Despite these revealing numbers, the most tragic fact is this: Many people living with mental health issues say the stigma of the disease is worse than the illness itself. As a product of this feeling of shame and discomfort, thousands of Canadians do not seek the treatment that they require. How can this happen? Why would anyone refuse help for a treatable condition? Well, consider the following scenario, courtesy of the CMHC.
Imagine if . . . you broke your leg, and your friends and family decided you were only looking for attention when it affected your ability to walk? Imagine if . . . everyone around you treated you as if you had a serious character flaw because of that leg? How likely would you be to admit you had a problem? How likely would you be to seek treatment?
In 2009, in this era of purported social progress, this dehabilitating level of discrimination is simply unacceptable. There are many causes for the stigma surrounding topics of mental health, however, the onus for the reversal of this misunderstanding begins with us in the media. As a voice for society, members of the media should aspire to promote positive perceptions of mental health. We should also be able to count on our audience to hold us accountable to these ambitions and responsible whenever we do misstep by perpetuating stereotypes or spreading outdated information. Beyond monitoring media reports though, you can also take individual action to limit the negative influence of stigma. For starters, if you know someone who has experienced mental health problems, do not allow their condition or your previous misconceptions about mental health speak on their behalf, instead, let them do the talking themselves. Strike up a conversation. You will likely find that they share some of the same values, skills and dreams as you do.
Through this simple step, you will hopefully learn more about mental health issues and gain the tools to contribute to an open and positive dialogue on these concerns. This dialogue is crucial, because at the end of the day, the only way we can make significant progress here is through an open and honest approach to mental health. By collectively taking steps to reduce stigma, we can encourage those struggling with their mental well-being to seek the help they need and, in the process, create a healthier and more inclusive world.