The Next Phase in Mental Health Advocacy

By Jimmy Kang

In 2013, some eye-opening data was shared by NCHA that highlighted high prevalence of mental illness among Canadian university students. If you have been attending a postsecondary institution in the past few years, I’m sure you’ve noticed a tremendous push towards destigmatization of mental illness on and off campus. Having been a part of this advocacy process myself in the past, I would like to address a particular concern of mine regarding this advocacy movement.

The problem I see stems from the concept of overexposure. I believe overexposure of certain content will lead to its dismissal and eventually prevent us from thinking critically about the issue on hand. A relevant example that backs this assumption is the advertisements we see everyday. They catch our attention the first time, but their messages get dismissed by us anytime after that. It’s human nature to bypass any information that we are already aware of. Tying this back to mental health, I am afraid the constant bombardment of mental health awareness campaigns that we see today have led us to a point in which we dismiss their efforts.

Let me be clear in saying that there is still work needed in destigmatizing mental health. It’s not the goal of these campaigns that I have trouble with, it’s the approach and the message that I find troublesome. So here are few suggestions that I have in mind regarding mental health advocacy.

First, mental health campaigns should emphasize providing action-oriented solutions as opposed to just raising awareness. For example, University of Alberta released a video that shows how student group involvement have led to students becoming less anxious, less lonely, and more connected. These types of message are effective because they provide students with resources for improvement. On the other hand, if messages solely focuses on addressing the existing problems and do not contain action-oriented solutions, students still remain ill-equipped to address the problems that have been identified.

My second suggestion pertains to improving the “behind-the-scenes” infrastructures, policies, and programs that keep students mentally healthy on campus. It’s formulating this ground-work that will tangibly improve how our campuses combat mental illness; I believe awareness campaigns can only go as far as mobilizing groups of people to talk about the issue. One example as to how we can set this foundational work is by using the Population Health Promotion (PHP) model developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada. For the sake of being concise, I will not delve into this model, but provide examples that were derived out of this.

To start with, let’s look at campus-wide improvements that can be made. Universities can create policies that encourage professors to facilitate classroom conversations that address difficulties associated with making friends in large lecture halls. Fundings can also be efficiently allocated towards programs that enable students to connect with various student groups because they serve as socialization channels. How about creating more programs and coupons to help students join recreational sports teams and classes? Perhaps holding more university-wide social events could promote students to get to know one another. More active campus-wide promotion towards athletic events would give students opportunities to get out and cheer for their school thereby creating connectedness and pride towards their university. The atmosphere we have during the Orientation week should be carried over throughout the year. These subtle adjustments that don’t necessarily advertise mental health advocacy can still make tremendous changes in our mental health. These improvements can affect how we interact with our university and the way we form social relationships with fellow students.

Subsequently, faculties can play a big role in improving mental health. Are faculties giving students enough resources in regards to jobs and opportunities available? As a student minoring in business at the University of Alberta, I see numerous postings in the business faculty regarding networking events and competitions. These opportunities expose students to their field of interest and provide them with multiple career options. However, I am struggling to find similar opportunities being provided for the Science and Arts students. There is confusion among students who do not necessarily want to pursue a professional degree because of the relative lack of career exposure events being organized. This is crucial because a large chunk of student anxiety can stem from the uncertainty they have with their future career plans. When we look at the #1 ranked university Cal-Tech, we see over 90% of undergraduate students being involved in research. This not only gives Cal-Tech students exposure as to what career path they can take with their degrees, but it also lowers student anxiety. Canadian universities need to ensure all faculties are providing enough programs and events that give students opportunities to find their future careers because it plays a significant role in reducing anxiety.

Finally, let’s focus specifically on the mental health services offered on campus. The new Advanced Education minister of Alberta, Marlin Schmidt has promised to put mental health as a priority on his list of things to look at. I am excited to see new changes and support coming to our campuses, but we need to be prepared to efficiently utilize that support. The Counselling and Clinical Services at University of Alberta offer various classes and resources for students. These classes run throughout the year and they are catered towards helping students on various difficulties they might face during undergrad. Because it takes an incredible amount of courage for students to seek out help, we need to identify any obstacles that prevent students from reaching out. Then we should be able to come up with a plan to adequately eliminate these barriers. The dissemination of their resources is something I also want to touch on. Students should be able to easily locate and have these resources online in addition to the physical copies. As of now, they are not being distributed enough and are not easily accessible. As opposed to constantly seeking for funding, we should critically explore areas in which we can optimize these services for students.

In general, I hope to see us moving progressively towards having solutions-focused discussions in regards to mental health. Important to note, these are changes that anyone, not just the people in university governance, can advocate for. The responsibility falls directly on our shoulders to progress this dialogue. Are we going to repeatedly talk about existing problems, or are we going to challenge ourselves to take action oriented steps? Just as successful as we have been with raising mental health awareness, I see us achieving great things with this next phase in mental health advocacy.

About the Author:

Jimmy is a 4th year student at the University of Alberta. He has created an online mental health project through his magazine Prostory, and advocated for mental health on a national stage at the New Canada Conference in 2014. He will be attending University of Cambridge to work on a dissertation regarding mental health this summer.