This is the latest in a contributor column by Zoe Lauckner. Check back next issue for the latest in mental health issues.
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 20 per cent of the country’s population live with a mental illness (that’s close to seven million people, or one in five). As we can see by these numbers, we all have some kind of connection to mental health issues, whether through personal lived experience, or in knowing someone who struggles. In 2009, VIU reported their student population was close to 20 thousand people (which has undoubtedly grown since then); meaning that almost four thousand of the student body potentially lives with a mental illness. Considering that university is a very common time for mental health issues to arise due to the level of stress and financial instability that accompanies post-secondary schooling, it’s quite possible that the prevalence is even higher than four thousand.
With these numbers in mind, I invite you to reflect on your own judgments or thoughts about those whom society labels as the “mentally ill.” Our media often portrays folks with these struggles as violent and unpredictable, and many people tend to adopt these beliefs without educating themselves on the topic and forming their own beliefs. These negative attitudes, over-generalizations, and prejudices that arise from misinformation and misrepresentation create the stigmas that can haunt people who live with mental health issues. Stigmas aren’t held only at individual or group levels, but exist strongly within society in general and create systems of oppression that can be hard to decimate.
In November 2014, a man by the name of Phuong Na Du was found in downtown Vancouver, distraught, talking to himself, and walking around with a piece of lumber in his hands. Du passed a number of people at a nearby bus stop without incident before the Vancouver Police came on scene. At least three officers were present, asking Du to put down the two-by-four and comply with their requests. When Du did not comply, the Vancouver Police Department opened fire on him. Eyewitnesses said the whole thing happened within a minute. Du, who was known by his (very supportive) family to have struggled with schizophrenia, was later pronounced dead at the age of 51.
While this situation is very sad and all too common, it highlights the need for more mental health-specific training for all first responders, and, frankly, for the public in general. It also shows how quick we are to make judgments about those we perceive as “mentally ill”—as being violent, unstable, and a threat to our society. Stigmas create blame, shame, discrimination, and barriers to people who are perceived to have mental illness, and can become internalized beliefs about the self that are damaging to self-efficacy and esteem. Stigmas make accessing services, housing, and employment difficult, and sometimes impossible. Stigmas are living, breathing forms of oppression that many of us engage in unknowingly.
Discrimination, stigma, prejudice—whatever you want to call it—can take many forms. From subtle turns of phrases or jokes, to blatant discrimination, prejudice can be an intentional or unconscious cognitive process. As our media supports the creation of prejudices in a number of ways, it can be hard to be aware of times when you have adopted a negative belief with no foundation or factual basis. A common reason that people adopt negative views of those who struggle with mental health issues is that the very topic of mental illness makes them uncomfortable. It is easier to separate us from them than to admit to ourselves that we too are susceptible to these issues.
Now that the context is set, next column I am going to be challenging you, dear reader, to get more involved in mental health literacy. There are a number of ways that you can get involved in a process of decreasing stigma, including education sessions, community forums, volunteer work, and more. We’ll turn the page on this sad chapter of stigmatization and begin to talk about ways that we can work together to promote proper education and movement towards a compassionate perspective.
Stay sane(ish), VIU! Until next time…
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day