We need to be more mindful when we talk about mental illness

December 3, 2020
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

The mental illness label can have tremendous impacts and we should approach it with more care

By: Frank Chen, Contributor

CW: mentions of mental illness

Veterans of university know: this late-November to mid-December stretch is not a good time of the year. As midterms wrap up and exam season ramps into full gear, this is the point where students become overwhelmed, burnt out and exhausted. Yet, we have some of the most important examinations ahead. Especially in this “unprecedented” year, the burden on students is massive, and the McMaster University community has been vocal about it.

At the forefront of this is a discussion regarding student mental health. Over the past year, the ideas of mental health and mental illness have been thrown around a lot by students. Students are increasingly expressing loneliness, reporting frustration with coursework and burning out. As a result of those feelings, I’ve seen more and more people labelling themselves as depressed or anxious. But “mental illness” is a term with a lot more weight than many people realize. 

When the “mental illness” tag is put on you, it’s often seen as a fixed state — a never-ending onslaught of “bad” mental health. It becomes easy to stop appreciating the good parts of your life when you fixate on the idea that you are “mentally unfit.” Regardless of illness or not, there can be real harm done just by the label itself. 

As an example, in my first year of university (which was in person), I bought into the idea that my stresses and insecurities were a form of generalized anxiety disorder. Due to this, I put boundaries on how I could or could not act based on what I thought of my own mental state. This took away so many possibilities. 

Instead, I now realize how my stresses in my first year could be reframed as a normal response to a change of environment and an adaptation to university life. But regardless, my belief of having anxiety limited me and it can be incredibly easy to misjudge these negative emotions to mental illness. 

Both my personal experience and some of the nuances in how students talk about mental illness illustrate an important idea: that our view of mental illness can be incredibly individualized. In stressful situations that evoke emotional responses and actions, we often miscategorize our failings to ourselves rather than a product of our environment.

For example, students often blame themselves for their grades, for not being prepared enough or for not being that star student who can simultaneously juggle many commitments. However, what we fail to consider are the social contexts that we are in that often make it difficult to achieve these standards, such as home conditions, family duties or socioeconomic status. 

In stressful situations that evoke emotional responses and actions, we often miscategorize our failings to ourselves rather than a product of our environment.

Similarly, students also often talk about mental health as a dichotomous issue, as either having good or bad mental health, which inherently puts pressure on themselves to “fix” their mental states. But realistically, everyone has good and bad days, largely influenced by the events and activities taking place that day. Mental health is less a fixed state based on your own failures, but rather something that is constantly fluctuating largely influenced by your surroundings. 

Our individualized view of mental illness poses danger for those caught up in it. Mental health when approached from the view that it’s the fault of the individual can often lead to a vicious cycle where mental illness can lead to self-doubt and self-hate, furthering negative self-perceptions. The label of illness can be hard to escape from, but social context is key when approaching the way you feel. Understanding that the vast majority of signs and symptoms of what you may think is illness can actually come as normal responses to stressful contexts.

It can be hard to step back and convince yourself that social contexts can play the role it does. Historically, mental health as a discipline has been rooted in individualism, harkening back to the days when disabled people, 2SLGBTQIA+ folks and others who were deemed socially undesirable were blamed for their “mental illness.”

Mental illness was used as a tool to control those who didn’t conform to social standards set at the time, their purpose was originally to condemn the individual. In part, it’s this long-standing history of individualized mental illness that contributes to why so many people still think of it this way today.  

With the impending exam season, we need to be more aware of the implications of a term like “mental illness.” As we move into a stressful time for students and educators alike, I hope that we can all consider whether those negative thoughts and emotions are truly arising from mental illness or something else — because it can be very easy to misattribute feelings as disease, when there can be bigger and broader social contexts in play.

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