Mental health is just health

Physical health has always been something that people invest massive amounts of resources to improve. Think of all of the money that is given to hospitals and institutions in order to develop and advance medicine. Consider the amount of time people spend going to the gym and eating healthy. It is something that we as human beings have been conditioned to pay attention to and care about. The sad truth is that the same cannot be said for mental health. 

Of course this is not to say that absolutely no one pays attention to mental health. Brock University prides itself on providing top mental health services to their over 19,000 students; pride that is not unfounded. According to the latest annual Maclean’s University Ranking, Brock University rated No. 1 in mental health services among Canada’s comprehensive universities. This means that Brock has a wide array of services available to students that promote wellness and support students struggling with their mental health. 

“Dons and Head residents are available for residence students, but Brock constantly has walk-in times for counseling on the fourth floor at Harrison Hall and over at the campus pharmacy,” said Suzanne Zook-Johnston, a registered psychotherapist at Student Health Services. “We have personal counselling on the fourth floor so they can make an appointment, we have it here in Harrison Hall. We are all over campus. We also have ‘Good2Talk’ if somebody just wants to pick up the phone. There is a 24 hour hotline for students so they don’t even have to leave their rooms.”

There is definitely a massive amount of time, effort and resources invested into making sure that students feel safe and well supported. According to Anna Lathrop, vice-provost for Teaching, Learning and Student Success, Brock’s number one ranking is a reflection of the Student Wellness and Accessibility team, who developed and implemented the mental health initiatives.

“We focus on steps that prevent mental health issues for our students,” said Lathrop. “The most important prevention strategy is demonstrating that we are a caring university community in the first place.” 

These initiatives include a workshop that explains anxiety and provides students with strategies to manage it, especially around exam time; a panel of undergraduate and graduate students who advise the Student Wellness and Accessibility Centre on everything from hours of operation, to what kinds of communication work best with students and partnerships with agencies like Community Addiction Services of Niagara and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), so that mental health initiatives are supported by a larger system that extends beyond campus- this means that among other benefits, more counselling is available to students. 

Looking at it from this perspective it does indeed look as though mental health is being awarded the attention that it deserves. However, mental health is not an exact science. Issues do not present in easily identifiable symptoms and solutions are often specific to individuals. 

In the fiscal year 2018-2019, Canada spent approximately $1.1 billion on health research and $36 billion on health services. Mental health research is funded largely by non-government organizations and received a lump sum of $5 billion to be distributed over ten years following 2017. Looking at the massively disproportionate allocation of funds by the government, the situation becomes clearer. Good mental health is treated more as a desirable than a necessity.

According to Dr. Patrick Smith, national CEO for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Canada’s universal health-care system is a point of pride for Canadians, but the reality is, we don’t have a universal health-care system. We have a universal medical system that doesn’t guarantee access to some of the most basic mental health services and supports. This is becoming an increasing concern for many Canadians, as according to a new survey commissioned by CMHA, 59 per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds consider anxiety and depression to be ‘epidemic’ in Canada, followed closely by addiction at 56 per cent and ahead of physical illnesses such as cancer (50 per cent), heart disease and stroke (34 per cent), diabetes (31 percent) and HIV/AIDS (13 per cent).

For context on just how disproportionate the reactions to physical health versus mental health are, the government of Canada reported that approximately 11 people die by suicide each day, that’s about 4,000 deaths a year. About 1 in 5 Canadians (that’s 6.7 million of us) are affected by mental illness each year. However, this number only includes those who have been formally diagnosed and doesn’t take into account those who suffer from mental illness but are falling through the cracks of a still-problematic system. Out of those diagnosed with mental illness annually, depression and bipolar disorder, substance abuse disorder or addiction, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and PTSD are among the most common.

Yes, physical diseases are important and the global instinct to resolve as many as possible is justified . By no means is the suggestion that less attention or resources should be given to developing cures and medical advances. The argument is merely that more needs to be done to advance mental health services. It should at the very least be a reaction proportionate to the numbers, which are staggering. 

“In any given week, 500,000 Canadians aren’t able to work due to mental illness,”says Fardous Hosseiny, national director, research and policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). “By 2020, depression will be the leading cause of disability in Canada and that “an estimated $50 billion is lost annually through unemployment, absenteeism and presenteeism,” the latter being when someone suffering from mental illness is showing up to work but is struggling.

The CMHA found that 85 per cent of Canadians say mental health services are among the most underfunded services in our health-care system and the majority agree (86 per cent) that the Government of Canada should fund mental health at the same level as physical health.  

“Canadians are suffering from health conditions that are preventable or manageable with the right supports,” said Dr. Smith. 

Based on the Maclean ranking, it seems as though Brock may have discovered just what the ‘right support’ is and how to prevent and manage the variety of conditions that students may have. The university doesn’t just provide a diverse range of services, but also ensures that these services are centered around the student and what they specifically need. Students are encouraged at every opportunity to talk about their challenges and seek professional help. 

 “If we don’t talk about it we hold it in, and some of us do hold things in and others may explode. Everyone has a different way of coping with their stress, which we all experience day in and day out. ” said Zook-Johnston. “Some people may eat when they are stressed and some may not. Some turn to alcohol or drugs, some yell and scream, some hold it in. There are different ways of coping. For counseling to be most effective, it is helpful to talk because the councilor may not know what is going on with the individual without them openly sharing what they are struggling with.”

Zook-Johnston believes that Brock’s services are effective because while there are methods to research different symptoms and treatments on the internet, the benefit of  counseling would be to set personal goals and work with somebody that the individual feels comfortable with. 

“It is definitely important to feel comfortable and build trust with somebody and work on their own personal goals or challenges,” said Zook-Johnston. “Sometimes it’s insightful. When we talk to someone, sometimes it helps us gain insight into our situation whereas if we were to have held it all in we would not have that insight. Now sometimes people do self-reflect a lot but not everyone is capable of doing that so it depends on the person.”

For students living on campus, the residence department has ensured that the Head Residents are equipped with the basic skills required to support students. 

“The training I have is mental health first aid training for youth and adults, there are two that you can get, because some of the individuals that we deal with are under 18 when they come,” said Tayler Shannon, head resident of Quarry View. “For myself in my position it is a mandatory certification because we need to make sure that there are people on campus who have it.  We are not trained professionals in the sense of being able to provide support the way someone trained in that field would, just like in regular first aid I can’t provide the same treatment as a paramedic.”

The training that Shannon and other head residents received is available to anyone, it is not a requirement that they be a professional to sign up and it doesn’t expire. In general it’s really great training for people to have as mental health concerns become more prominent and more talked about.

Despite Brock’s valiant attempts, many students still feel that their mental health is not taken into consideration by the university. 

“Telling a [professor] you were sick and showing a doctor’s note gets you excused from seminars and tests, but how do I get a doctor’s note for my depression or anxiety being particularly bad that day?” said one third-year political science student who wished to remain anonymous. “They don’t believe you. One [professor] actually told me that ‘not feeling like it,’ isn’t an excuse he can accept. How can I feel ‘safe to talk’ when that’s the attitude?”

This sentiment is echoed by a lot of students at Brock who feel that the University has taken a few steps in the right direction but is still a prime example of the nation-wide habit of focusing more on physical health and trivializing mental health.  

“They do offer a lot of services, I just don’t know how effective they are,” said Sara Hatem, a first-year political science student. “It feels like they are only trying to serve you as quickly as possible and get you out, kind of like when you go to the clinic when you’re sick and they just want to know what’s wrong with you so they can give you medicine and get to the next person. It works for physical health cause yeah I’m not trying to sit there for an hour just so you can tell me I have a cold. But it’s different for mental health. I need to sit there for an hour so that you can actually be informed. There’s no way you can tell how to help someone after sitting with them for a few minutes or even for only one appointment. It feels like Brock wants the credit without really committing.” 

A position held by one student living in residence is that there actually isn’t any support for them. 

“The support available is really dependent on the Don or Head Resident that you have. Most of the time you’ll get a generic, ‘thanks for opening up to me, here are the services available to help you,’ and you feel like you were just completely ignored.”

Shannon expressed that she had received a lot of feedback similar to this. 

“To clarify why it’s more about allocating resources and referring people it’s because it would be the same as me giving standard CPR to someone who can’t breathe. That’s about the extent of the first aid training that I have because the next step is a professional,” said Shannon. “There are things that I can do from a personal stance like breathing techniques or things that have worked for me, I can do that but it’s not necessarily a part of the training, it’s more from personal experience, but further than that it’s a professional that can offer more because they are the ones who have gone through years of training to deal with the mental health side of things.”

This is the challenge with mental health support in a nutshell and why it is so different from physical health. Mental health issues are such a personal thing and often take a lot of effort to talk about, but more often than not, the first and maybe even second person that you talk to may not be able to help you. This can be frustrating and often leads people to believe that talking about it doesn’t help, or that the people they are talking to don’t actually care.

“Whenever we approach somebody with a sense of concern or care, I think that helps the person feel like you are on their  side,” said Johnston. “Even just saying ‘I am worried about you, I am wondering if something is going on for you. I want you to know we are here to talk to and there are all kinds of people on campus that you could talk to if you want to reach out and talk to somebody.’ Everybody wants people to care about them. I think we all as humans need that.”

Mental health support is something that someone has to choose for themselves, unless they are in immediate danger to themselves or someone else. Talking to them and offering them ways that they can help themselves is the most common avenue and people are most often willing to do that. But how do you get someone to realize that they need help in the first place? It’s not as easy to recognize as physical pain, and definitely not as easy to treat. 

“I think it’s hard to say to someone, ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve changed behavior’ I have found that people get really defensive. Not to say that people shouldn’t do that, it’s good to reach out to people you care about. I think it’s just about bridging the gap, and it’s usually to a friend,” said Shannon. “Whereas if they come to me it’s usually that first step where they are already willing to take that step, and getting them to see a professional is a little bit easier.” 

Brock has definitely demonstrated that they are willing to provide the services needed to support students in terms of needing to talk or getting medication, but this is not enough. Similar to the ‘paws rooms’ held so often on campus, that are aimed at helping students destress, there are many other steps that can be taken to keep students from needing to get to the point where they require medication or counselling. This is why more funding needs to be put into research on mental health, so that professionals can be more adequately trained in a field that is so unpredictable and so that schools and institutions can avoid creating environments harmful to students’ mental health. 

Mental health is just health. It is not important only because it can affect physical health or interfere with education. It’s important because it is necessary to fulfill the requirements of ‘health’. The Oxford dictionary defines health as ‘the state of being free from illness or injury’. If one’s mental health is suffering, then no matter how physically fit a person is, they are not healthy. Investing in mental health is not a ‘liberal’ or ‘socialist’ move, it’s a logical move that will save lives and drastically improve life for millions. The sooner Brock, Canada and the rest of the world realizes this, the sooner we can begin to have a much healthier global population.

 

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