Op-Ed – A student’s voice in the campus conversation on mental health

Qianshu Wang - 2T Nanotechnology
Posted on: March 25, 2017

Warning: the following article discusses mental illness and suicide.

As many already know, a fellow UW student recently took their own life. Discussion on campus regarding mental health and student well-being, as well as the university’s own specific role in these issues, have been reignited as a result of this event.  There has been a multitude of opinions presented, some of which lead to one main question: why does the University of Waterloo have such a struggle with battling mental health issues, and what could lie at the root of some of the struggles students in general face? In this article I will present my own opinions on matters related to mental health and what I think specifically makes up the majority of these issues on campus. This is not to offer any possible solutions as I am not qualified enough to do so (I do not possess training in psychology or social work) but instead this is to offer understanding and perhaps help people to see something in a new way, and maybe serve as a small brick laid in the foundation of a solution. I want to emphasize that this is merely my own opinion based on my own personal experiences and is designed to serve as a personal breakdown and analysis. Analyzing this we have to look at the mental health services that are available on campus and the critical issues regarding their underuse, as well as the student body as a whole and why people might not seek help.

Regarding types of mental health services, the university offers a significant number of them, including standard counselling, UW MATES, Residence Dons, and the various initiatives from each individual faculty as well as outside services such as 7 Cups of Tea, Good2Talk, and Here 24/7, with counselling receiving generally the most traffic. However, another issue that lies at the heart of the battle with mental illness is actually the under-utilization of these services by the student body. So really, why does this happen? One possible explanation is that an individual experiencing mental illness may be unwilling to accept that part of themselves, or may not be aware of their own issues. This often stems from the isolated feeling or misconception that mental illness may be fabricated in his or her mind, leading to the sense of loneliness or the  misguided belief that no one will understand. Additionally, we need to look at the mindset of students in general.  Students can generally be very driven and care deeply about their future and have a high focus on success. This can result in students pushing aside their problems, thinking that they have no time to focus on them in the face of other  responsibilities, or that their issues are not serious enough to deserve attention which leads to neglect of their vital self-care and maintenance. Many people can and will throw themselves into academic or professional work in an attempt to bury their troubles. Others might put on an extroverted mask and surround themselves with others in order to push aside their personal struggles, by committing themselves to events and social service. These actions can cause personal issues to fester and build up unhealthily in one’s mind.

Furthermore, we need to consider the common saying that mental issues and intelligence often go hand in hand, and as a result the university itself might unintentionally self-select for individuals with mental health issues. Essentially, the idea behind this is that many of the possible traits that help people get into UWaterloo such as intense dedication and the willingness to push themselves both physically and mentally to their limits in the pursuit of doing well, can be greatly detrimental to personal health. Examples of this include staying up obscenely late to finish schoolwork, absolutely refusing to quit working past a reasonable point, or delving into things and over-analyzing them to an excessive degree. People push themselves whether that be in pursuit of grades or other commitments they have made and some people often don’t like to admit defeat. However, there will come a time in everyone’s lives where you will try your very best and push yourself to your absolute limits…and still fail. Sometimes it’s okay to fail, as failure itself is needed for growth and success and is something that can’t truly be avoided in life. Captain Picard from the Star Trek series once said that “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.” People sometimes don’t recognize when they need to quit, and it can be very easy to have tunnel vision and lose sight of what really matters.

Another point going into this is the fact that it can be significantly challenging to understand others and to be truly understood in return. Until perhaps telepathy is invented, we will never truly be able to perfectly understand others and in some way our perceptions and understanding of others, even our closest friends and family, will always be flawed. Vast complexity, as well as a myriad amount of possibilities in thought, define human existence; but this is also our burden to bear as we live lives that are interconnected with others and yet also separate. A quote from the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy explains this well, as he wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This can be understood in this context by knowing even though if one feels lonely and can see that others are also lonely, it does not mean that you will be able to find solace with them. People feel loneliness in different ways and for different reasons which can prevent human understanding even when it is needed most. Loneliness is a fundamental part of the human condition and nothing, not even being in a relationship, will change that. I believe that even though we will never be able to truly understand or be able to be understood by others, it is always worth trying; meaning itself can found in our persistent attempts to reach out to others.

In summary, mental health is a deeply complex issue with an incredibly diverse amount of different factors weaving into it. Mental health can be difficult to understand and work to improve it for the student body as a whole is even more challenging. However, every little bit of effort and advocacy helps and only by striking up good dialogue and seeking to understand each other can we advance ourselves and create a better life for us all. Even this piece itself, in its own admittedly clumsy way, attempts to do that.

My final point is this: everything I have written here is my own opinion and there are many other opinions that are also valid. Living can be a difficult thing sometimes and peace can seem elusive, but many paths exist to it in life. You need to find your own thing that holds meaning to you and that you can believe in. For me I found it in balance, discipline, and understanding the contradictory freedom that lay in the realization of my own meaninglessness in the tapestry of existence.

Thank you for taking the time to read what I have written. My hope is that reading this has helped you to consider new things you have not considered before. Above all, know that people care and you need to reach out to find them. If you need help, this is my plea that you please seek it out. No struggle needs to be faced alone. If anything in this piece resonated well with you or if you are critical of anything I wrote here or even if you just want to talk I would love to hear from you.