It is, apparently, Mental Health Wellness Day at the University of Waterloo. I found that out from a memo from this morning. We’re supposed to be wearing orange but I’m wearing pyjamas because I had an insomnia flareup that kept me awake but exhausted from 2:30-6:30, so I opted to work from home today. For my mental health and wellness.
There is a video, with a kind of folky piano soft singy thing going on, reminding us to remind our students that you are not alone, and that we are all in this together.
Have a look, there’s lots of earnest people holding whiteboards earnestly in some picturesque campus locations:
These all seem like lovely people. But this is not what we need. To be clear, it is fantastic that the stigma around disclosing mental illness is beginning to dissipate, and videos like this work toward that goal. That goal is not enough. All the supportive videos in the world don’t mean too much when there aren’t enough counsellors to see the students who need help. When UW didn’t have an Employee Assistance Program until just this summer, and mental health care expenses are capped at just under $600 per year. (That’s a little less than five sessions with a therapist. Ask me how I know.)
Videos don’t help when they seem to feature a parade of well-looking people performing compassion for a camera. In my work as a faculty member, as a teacher, as a supervisor, as a member of a workplace, I have seen some remarkably caring and empathetic and supportive interactions to support students or staff or faculty with mental illness. I have also seen remarkable gaslighting, dismissal, and resentment.
What do we need?
Make mental illness visible. If “1 in 5” of us suffers from mental illness, how come we never see these people? We people? There are 88 different people in this video: so probably about 17 of those, simply statistically, have a mental health issue now or in the past or in the future? Who? The stigma of disclosure is real and I don’t want to discount it, but as long as it’s “you” who are ill and “we” who accept you, disability remains invisibilized. And the stigma won’t end. I suffer from a mental illness. I take medication daily. I am in therapy. You want a face for high-functioing anxiety, well, here I am.
Stop making things worse. I’m cogitating on a little project in my head. It’s a project that seeks to rethink graduate curriculum, moving away from Giant End of Semester Papers in Every Course toward more frequent and smaller and scaffolded assessments, and more regular feedback. There’s a reason so many students flame out at the end of term: there’s too much to do, too little structure around doing it, too much isolation, and a lot of pressure for major assignments. Just because we’ve always done it that way, we don’t have to keep doing it that way. Can we craft more supportive curricula and teaching structures that won’t present such obvious triggers to the anxious, the depressed, the bipolar, and everyone else?
Train staff who deal with students. I run a big grad program. Take that 1-in-5 stat. Extrapolate to my 120 students and imagine that I’ve arranged more than one medical accommodation over 2+ years. Now ask yourself how much training I received in supporting students in this way? If you guessed “zero zip zilch nada” you would be absolutely correct. I’m winging it. Luckily, I have deep personal expererience with mental illness in myself and many people that I love, but I’m winging it. All these students who need help need it from me first, and I’m trying my damnedest to do right by them, but I’m making it up as I go along. That’s ridiculous.
Train staff who deal with staff. It’s amazing to me how many people will wear an orange shirt for mental health awareness day, and then stigmatize or isolate colleagues who secure workplace accommodations. Maybe that person who “gets to” start work at 10 am every day has a sleep disorder and can only cobble together five hours of total sleep in the twelve hours between 8pm and 8am. Maybe the person who has a private and unshared office needs a safe place to recover from panic attacks. Maybe that person who holds meetings with another staff member always present has a trauma they’re dealing with. You don’t know the why of it. And you have no right to know. If you want to support the mental health of your colleagues be gracious enough to assume that if something looks “special” it’s because they need it.
Refine “accommodation”; make university more accessible to all. Students who suffer depressive episodes and fail their courses can petition to have the grades removed. Students with anxiety can write exams in private rooms. But how do you accommodate mental health issues beyond coursework? How do you create an accommodation plan for a student writing a dissertation? Usually, the answer is “give more time” but that is expensive to the student and doesn’t solve the main problem. A graduate student suffering acute mental illness can go “inactive” in my program — but they give up all their funding for the duration, and may be kicked out of university housing. So of course they don’t do this. We need short term disability insurance for graduate students. We need ways to support undergraduate students who have to do reduced course loads but lose privileges as a result. Accommodations are not always as simple as “longer exam time” or “peer note taker.” Some of these fixes are expensive, and structural.
Less spin class, more sadness. I had to dig around to find the website for this. You can order a t-shirt! You can attend a spin class in the student centre for mental health! Um, you know who’s not going to do any of this? People suffering actively from mental illness. God, it all seems so chirpy. There is a post-secret wall, which is good: post a thought anonymously that you’d like others to know. You know what else would be great? Tables with members of support groups. A quiet room for people to come sit in and be sad, and accepted. On the spot academic advising. Puppies. Some programming that would serve those 1s-in-5s (us 1s-in-5s), make us feel that space has been made for us, to feel how we feel, to support and offer help right now. I mean, the Wellness Day website has a bunch of links for gear and spin class, and only two links to services for students. Oh wait, that’s just one link, repeated in two adjacent bullet points. Look, I want to know why there’s literally 12 different links I can click to register for a spin class, but exactly zero links I can click to register for a counselling session. Ask yourself about priorities, people.
That’s what I can think of right now as my own contribution to mental health and wellness day. Ideas, stories, comments, hacks, and accommodation plans welcome!