This Wednesday was Bell Let’s Talk Day, an annual mental illness and mental health awareness campaign. The peer health educators of the HealthyU Crew’s Mental Health Team ran two live programs for Bell Let’s Talk Day. In the Sidney Smith lobby, we held a booth where students can write on colourful message bubbles about what mental health means to them to put onto a poster, take photos with a cardboard Instagram frame promoting mental health, and take home with them a self-care package we prepared. Meanwhile, we also put up nine chat bubbles across campus that students can write on like a whiteboard to answer prompts like “The best supports for my mental health are…” and “I had a friend support me by…”.
Overall, the programs were great successes. We had just under a hundred student interactions at the booth, and students wrote many heartfelt and insightful messages on the chat bubbles. I view the successes as an indication of the change in the public landscape on the topic of mental health in the last decade. In a 2008 survey, “46% of Canadians thought people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour”1, but in 2015, “70% of Canadians believe that attitudes about mental health issues have changed for the better compared to five years ago”2. It is becoming easier to talk about mental health openly for Canadians. That said, we want to acknowledge here that “easier” is not the same as “easy”.
Our chat bubble prompts made an implicit assumption that students feel comfortable talking about mental health. This was intentional because we want to encourage students to openly talk about mental health and for other students to see that they can talk about it. However, it remains a fact that not every student feels comfortable, and this was conveyed by one of the messages left on our chat bubbles that read:
“Let’s talk about why it’s so hard to talk.”
On the surface, the message may come off as negative or confrontational, but I don’t interpret it like that at all. We couldn’t address every aspect of the current mental health landscape in our programs, but that doesn’t mean that the aspects we didn’t address are not important. To the student who left this message, I say, “Yes, let’s talk about it.”
Why is it hard to talk about mental health? The short answer is stigma, but how exactly does stigma play out in the real world? I can provide my own experience of how stigma plays out in a culture that necessitates appearing strong, getting things done no matter what, and hyper competitiveness. I feel that this culture is common among men and also in the hard sciences, two public spheres I exist in.
In these spheres, I’ve noticed, it’s unlikely that they’ll be saying things like, “I feel really anxious about my coursework” or “I’ve been feeling really depressed the past few weeks”. Instead, they’ll say, “There’s so much more studying I have to do” and “I stopped caring that much. It’s just a course that I won’t need”. Not many people want to admit feeling anxious or depressed because this would show weakness. And, the perception is, they shouldn’t be weak because they’re supposed to lead; they shouldn’t get anxious, because they’re supposed to be confident; and they shouldn’t get depressed because they’re supposed to overcome challenges with sheer willpower. These are the implicit beliefs in these cultures even if no one ever openly says them. In my opinion, this is the underlying reason why men don’t admit that they are experiencing mental health challenges; these are the reasons why some men feel uncomfortable when another man opens up—the man who opened up broke the implicit code. I think that this is why it is hard to talk about mental health. This is the stigma we want to break.
What does breaking the stigma look like? Once upon a time, breaking the stigma on mental illness meant fighting really hard to voice your support for mental health because people will openly dismiss the idea and argue with you, and not every mental health advocate is secure enough in their own mental health to manage confrontations like that. But thanks to the advocates who could speak out and the increased education on mental health and illness, the landscape around the discourse on mental health and illness has shifted to one where opponents of mental health are much fewer, but it’s still hard for those managing mental health concerns and mental illness to openly talk about it because they are unsure that the response they get will be supportive. This is where we could do work. Those who are having a difficult time managing their mental health concerns can benefit from peers who show that they are open to talking about their own experiences of mental health (both languishing and flourishing). Additionally, it’s helpful when people break the mold and initiate conversations about mental health or even just casually talk about it in conversations–for example, actually asking “How are you doing today?” and remaining present for the answer. When we engage in these conversations, we create space for all experiences to be heard and we make it feel safer to talk openly and honestly about our mental health.
Mental health is an immensely large topic, and every individual will have a particular focus from their personal experiences. No single person or organization can cover the entirety of all the different experiences, but each of the experiences is worthy of being heard. So, let’s talk.
1 Canadian Medical Association (2008). 8th annual National Report Card on Health Care. Retrieved from https://www.cma.ca/multimedia/CMA/Content_Images/Inside_cma/Annual_Meeting/2008/GC_Bulletin/National_Report_Card_EN.pdf
2 Bell Canada (2015). Bell Let’s Talk: The first 5 years (2010-2015). Retrieved from http://letstalk.bell.ca/letstalkprogressreport