The hippo in the room
By: Dev Shields
With the 2016-17 school year, comes “Feed Your Hippo”, a new mental health initiative on campus. Run by the Student Wellness Centre and the McMaster Students Union, the campaign employs a cute cartoon hippo to represent the brain’s hippocampus. This part of the brain, according to the video posted on Vimeo, is responsible for “memories, learning and emotions.”
In order to give your hippo the nourishment it needs, the SWC campaign outlines five pillars to fulfill: be social, be mindful, be active, be curious and be aware.
According to the campaign, making sure to feed your hippo in these five ways can contribute to improved learning skills and academic success as well as mental wellbeing. Yet despite the supposed importance of these activities, no resources were provided to help students actually self care better — all of the onus is on the student.
Before we go any further, let me just say: if one more person tells me to do yoga or drink more water to aid/cure my depression, I am going to scream into the void for several hours.
The rhetoric surrounding self-care is damaging to mentally ill people, as well as feeds into a lot of harmful stigma about the “laziness” of people who are mentally ill. This program is nothing but a soft solution.
There is so much lip service on behalf of the MSU given about mental health that never seems to turn into anything more than mug-painting workshops and destressors. Self-care is fantastic and we should all be practicing it daily, regardless of whether we identify as a person with a mental illness or not. But campaigns like these seem to make people think that mental illness comes with an off switch.
If I just drink enough water, I can get to class. If I just go smell a frickin’ daisy or something, I can leave my room for once. This campaign reinforces the “just”. I’ve been hearing “just” followed by cures since I received my diagnosis. The fact is, people with an illness anywhere on the spectrum may also need to utilize counselling, different therapies or medication. And even then, no one is saying that these are cures.
Secondly, why wasn’t this program run by Maccess, McMaster’s new disability service? Why are we allowing mental health initiatives and events be headed by neurotypical people? I’ve heard many horror stories about MSU leaders who have publicly supported initiatives like MacTalks and even used accessibility as main points in their platforms for elected positions, who have turned around and failed to provide support and accommodations for people with mental health concerns. This is disingenuous, hurtful and can ultimately be very dangerous.
How about instead of putting time, money and energy into colourful campaigns, we lobby the university to hire more counsellors? Or create more therapy groups? Or finally create a campaign that refuses to tip toe around mental illness as if it were a sleeping monster? It’s not pretty, it’s not palatable, and it’s not romantic. And it will never be. But these events shouldn’t be. My illness, my neuroatypicality is not for your comfortable consumption. I refuse to be your running point.
Your students are drowning. Do something tangible.
Disclaimer: the author of this article is a peer support volunteer for Maccess.