Cast your mind back about two weeks to an average day at the end of January; a Wednesday of all days. Not particularly significant except for one element: #BellLetsTalk day. My opinion of this day and the awareness that it brings tends to shift somewhat unpredictably. The only constant being that I still afford appreciation for a concept that has brought so close and personal a topic such heightened visibility. I like to think it is no secret, and if it is, it is truly news to me: I live with a serious mental illness. Since my diagnosis it has played a very real and noticeable part of my life. For all of the ups and downs, and weird side to sides, it is something that I will never escape for it is as much a part of me as breathing or sleeping. With that deep integration there is an affinity for understanding that many may never comprehend, and while I have no doubt that this ignorance is truly bliss it can only be obliged so long as the ignorance is respected and understood by those who embody it.
Not two weeks have transpired since #BellLetsTalk and we are thrust into the most impactful of yearly traditions here at Brock University; that of the undergraduate student union executive elections. With each year come fanfare and promises anew that candidates impress upon an unsuspecting voting populace that they have all the solutions to all the problems currently facing the body politic. Ambition, much like naivety, knows no limits. Brass Tacks, I was an executive, I stood in the halls campaigning for every last vote on more than one occasion, and I will easily fault my past self for that same naivety, or at least fault where fault is due. To be sure I think there is little way a candidate could ever know all there is to know about the role before they run, and this is no bad thing. A suite of candidates bringing fresh eyes and ideas to roles is a necessity of student governance. Without such regular injections the system itself is prone to boredom, or worse obsoletism.
To be clear, no issue is had with candidates and the myriad of promises that they espouse to students in an attempt to secure their vote; this is the nature of the political process, no matter what level it happens to be at. That aside, I take exception with the inclusion of blanketed statements aimed at piquing interest, utilizing members of a marginalized group plainly for opportunistic advancement. A quick review indicates a number of candidates who make promises about ‘improving mental health on campus’, and further investigation only highlights the lengths to which candidates have gone to really understand the issue. I, as well as others within the mental health community, have long bemoaned the influx of puppy room propaganda; these notions that the solution to the increased concerns we see in students attending university or college can be placated with some yoga or art therapy. While I don’t dispute that these provide welcome benefits for some, for those of us with diagnosed illnesses pretending these are a catchall cure is insulting and undermining.
No different than are those who promise improvements when they don’t possess any real understanding of the issues at hand and the empty promises of providing more funding only exemplify this. Candidates fail to recognize that the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care does not provide funding for campus healthcare and it never has. Campus clinics are often private healthcare establishments, seconding services from other providers from across the community, severely limiting the ability for students to build a meaningful relationship with a single practitioner. Despite these fundamental limitations in the architecture of campus healthcare provision, I, and other students with illnesses like mine, are made to watch the hollow promises of student leaders aiming to utilize my marginalization for their particular benefit. If I were to seek out a comparison in order to further highlight the absurdity of this unquestioned situation, I would likely look to accessibility on campus. In particular, an examination of the ways in which our campus fails persons requiring accessible accommodations. From unmaintained winter walkways, to doors that do not have assistive opening devices, to elevators that do not announce the floor you’re on. It is interesting that candidates do not regularly promise ‘improving campus accessibility’.
Maybe you don’t find that interesting, maybe it is simply an anomaly or if it is a product of a society that has conditioned us to believe that vague undeliverable promises for some marginalized groups is unacceptable, but for not for others. Maybe it is down to the fact that mental health is a catchy topic right now, a buzzword for some people to latch on to in order to make it seem like they are really listening to the students they want to secure votes from. A combination of all of those is most likely, along with the fact that mental health stigma takes many forms, and that a single day promising to break down all the barriers just because we tweeted a specific hashtag hasn’t really gone as far as we thought in addressing these concerns.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article decrying the proposed programming levy for utilizing mental health as a method to gain more votes, without any clear outline as to how the money was going to address the issues that people like myself face on campus every day. Honestly, I’ll admit that I was hopeful that such shameless pandering would meet its just demise, and disappear into a fading distance. Instead, I have come to see the opposite, as opportunism continues to savagely extract what it needs from a community marginalized by those very people who claim to have the solutions for its improvement.