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Calling for university policy changes should be top priority for mental health advocates

By: Anonymous, Contributor

At the request of the contributor, a student who went through McMaster’s mental health services, the Silhouette has chosen to publish this piece anonymously over privacy concerns. We believe giving this person a platform that does not damage their reputation allows us to share an important first-person account.

CW: suicide, mental illness, policing

September is suicide prevention month and businesses and institutions are turning to social media with sentiments like it’s “okay to not be okay.” As someone who has been through challenging university processes during my undergrad at McMaster University as a result of my mental illness, which included cycles of intense suicidal ideation, these words never sit quite right with me. 

Although I seemed like a “model student,” for much of my undergrad I was constantly struggling with my mental health unbeknownst to those around me. But because my struggle didn’t seem apparent, counsellors often told me that I was just experiencing normal school stress and suggested band-aid solutions like meditation and walks even though I knew that something was very wrong.  

At the end of my third year, I reached an all-time low with my suicidal thoughts and couldn’t keep up the act that everything was fine anymore. As a result, I completely unravelled and verbally lashed out at people who I cared deeply about, with one of these individuals being a faculty member. 

This brought me into contact with the Student Support and Case Management Office because even though my actions were a result of mental illness and the complainant acknowledged this, I had engaged in behaviours that violated the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Initially, part of me felt relieved because I thought that this meant that Mac would understand how much I was struggling and I would finally be able to get the support that I needed. Unfortunately, this was not how things played out over the next two years.

I came to learn that despite having behavioural challenges as a result of my mental illness and having a psychiatrist verify this, going through a code-related issue incriminates you regardless. The Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities does have a specific section of how to address violations where a health issue is involved, but this doesn’t benefit students. In reality, it puts unwell students in a position where they have to advocate for themselves and be put under scrutiny of whether they are faking, attention-seeking or have malicious intent when they are none of the above. In fact, I was required to have an independent medical evaluation with a psychiatrist and they concluded that I was low risk for violent behaviour, yet I constantly felt like I could never do anything right in the eyes of the SSCMO. 

I had desperately tried to get more holistic, effective support my entire university career but couldn’t because I didn’t seem “sick enough.” However, when I was finally pushed past this threshold to the point where I was engaging in problematic behaviours, I was met with intimidation and punishment when I was in distress or didn’t voice my concerns in what the SSCMO deemed a “proper” manner. Despite being told that the contents of my behavioural contract and wellness plan were in place with the intention of facilitating my success, it was about the interests of the institution instead of my wellbeing.  

 However, when I was finally pushed past this threshold to the point where I was engaging in problematic behaviours, I was met with intimidation and punishment when I was in distress or didn’t voice my concerns in what the SSCMO deemed a “proper” manner.

I was actively suicidal at many points during this time and yet, contrary to what we are told, I felt ashamed when I vocalized this because the appropriateness of my tone was more important than my distress. Don’t get me wrong, I think that taking accountability for behaviours is important even if they are the result of mental illness, but the way that my case was dealt heightened my distress levels and made it much more difficult for me to be successful at improving my symptoms and behaviours.  

After taking a voluntary gap year, things didn’t get better with the SSCMO. It came to a point where although the interpersonal issues that brought me into their office were resolved a long time ago, being required to be involved with them as I continued my studies kept me in a toxic cycle. Having to continually be aware of a really low time in life through my obligations to work with the SSCMO had my mental health spiralling downwards again. I put on a “brave face” with peers and supervisors throughout the year but I once again found myself in a position where actions put forth by the university to supposedly help me counterproductively created more distress. The primary response by staff was punitive and the “support” that came afterwards felt more like an afterthought.  

When someone is struggling deeply with a mental illness, they need to feel supported, valuable and should not be defined by how they respond to things that they find distressing. When I was in this process, I believed that how I was being treated by the SSCMO was what I deserved. I began to internalize the prejudices and biases that these policies and staff have towards individuals who are in significant distress and began to feel like I was a bad person who didn’t deserve actual help or compassion. This made me feel isolated from the people in my life who truly cared about me. I kept so many secrets about what I was going through because I was ashamed. 

When someone is struggling deeply with a mental illness, they need to feel supported, valuable and should not be defined by how they respond to things that they find distressing. When I was in this process, I believed that how I was being treated by the SSCMO was what I deserved.

By my final term, I wasn’t myself at all. Despite being part of an amazing lab for my thesis and being involved with equity-related activities on campus, I wasn’t emotionally present and just felt like I was going through the motions of every day. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was truly a bad person instead of someone struggling with an illness that unbeknownst to me at the time, was actually rooted in a serious hormonal issue. I felt so disillusioned by the narratives that university staff were there to help. If this was the case, why did I feel so invalidated and criminalized for something that we are told to seek help for? If I was a “good” mentally ill person, would I have been treated better? If I didn’t advocate so heavily for my own ideas of what would help me, would this have ensured that I was seen as sick and not a non-compliant discipline case?

Now that I’m removed from the McMaster environment, I have been able to heal in a way that makes sense to me and honestly, I haven’t felt this good in years. But it shouldn’t have taken me having to graduate to have control over my own recovery. I would never discourage anyone from seeking support, but I am left feeling weary over how institutional policies related to mental illness are carried out. 

I would never discourage anyone from seeking support, but I am left feeling weary over how institutional policies related to mental illness are carried out. 

McMaster’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy implicates policing into significant mental health concerns and takes an approach where the person who is struggling has little agency in the support they receive, despite those with lived experience being experts in their own illness and life circumstances. Situations like mine will continue to occur unless there are significant policy changes that centre lived experiences and makes space for the entire spectrum of how mental illness may manifest.

Although my experience has pushed me to help others and advocate for change, it’s going to take me a lot of effort and time to heal from the impact of systems that were supposed to help me. This should never be the case. We have raised enough “awareness” about mental health and illness, now it’s time to push for policy changes that ensure those who are vulnerable are supported rather than punished. 

By telling my story that I had once felt so ashamed of, I hope that I can shed light on mental health policy issues at Mac and make students who are currently experiencing or have been through similar issues feel less alone. I want students to know that contrary to what it may feel like at times, they deserve to feel supported and have a safe, accepting space to overcome their struggles.

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