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By: Dev Shields
I have a hard time digesting the typicalities of “mental health awareness” events. There are hashtags and buttons and stickers. There is yoga, tea, and treats. There is some form of discussion. The week ends. We are still mentally ill. I will still attend a class for the first time in three weeks and someone will say “why can’t you just come to class?”
MacTalks is a relatively new happening, first set in motion by former VP Education Rodrigo Narro Perez. The first MacTalks week was held last year alongside McMaster’s newly unveiled “Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy.” Unfortunately, the attempt misses some crucial points.
Firstly, mental health awareness weeks tend to cater to “high functioning” depressive or anxiety ridden people, meaning someone who is at least partially able to carry on about your day and fulfill commitments (but doesn’t necessarily mean they are “not as sick”).
There are a couple of immediate issues with this. What about those who are not high functioning? People who can’t even manage to make it out of the house in the morning aren’t going to benefit from an event being held in the atrium.
Accessibility seems to have become something of a buzzword, but it is ironic that the events that are supposed to support accessibility for people with mental health issues and mental illnesses are well… inaccessible! The absence of online forums or streaming services for these events makes them off limits to those who find themselves too sick to leave the confines of their bedroom.
Secondly, what about those who are not dealing with depression or anxiety? Both are serious, debilitating and powerful illnesses. I struggle with them on a daily basis. However, it seems to me that most of the dialogue at events such as MacTalks does not address any other types of mental illness. You are hard pressed to find an abundance of discourse around PTSD, schizophrenia, psychopathy/sociopathy, bipolar disorder, depersonalization disorder or dissociative disorder, to name a few. Leaving out important information on these illnesses is defeating the purpose of having an awareness event in the first place.
This kind of dialogue leads to sanitized discussion. For example, while there is acknowledgement that self-harm exists and is widespread, there is not nearly enough focus on it. We are quick to romanticize people who have “overcome” their self-harm — their story is triumphant, acceptable, palatable — but there is no adequate support while the harming is ongoing. While SHEC will be holding an event about self-injury, the description available on the MSU website seems to imply that there will be no explicit talk of dealing with the actual physical wounds themselves. We know it is going on, so why can’t we be frank about it during a week devoted to mental health? Where are the forums about self-injury? Where are the pamphlets about how to clean wounds and avoid infection? How about support groups? Instead of involving ourselves and becoming aware, like these events promise, we dismiss the things that seem too touchy.
People who can’t even manage to make it out of the house in the morning aren’t going to benefit from an event being held in the atrium.
I think intention is important, and it is valid, but impact is by far more important. Awareness events like MacTalks have left a bad taste in my mouth. Dismissal of large groups of people who identify with being mentally ill or having poor mental health sabotages the idea of an all-encompassing and inclusive event.