5th April 2012

'There's stigma around the word stigma'

An overarching campus-wide review of mental health-related incidences and initiatives

A timeline of initiatives and activities surrounding mental health awareness on campus in the past year.
A timeline of initiatives and activities surrounding mental health awareness on campus in the past year. (Graphic by Corey Lablans)

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A report from the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health won’t be released this spring as originally planned.

The final report is scheduled to come out in the fall after soliciting more student input and working on a draft that’s currently in progress.

The Commission was launched in September 2011 to analyze how Queen’s responds to mental health issues on campus, what other universities do and what the best practices are, Principal Daniel Woolf told the Journal via email.

“Its recommendations will help us develop a strategy for Queen’s that brings together everything that’s already happening so as to ensure that we are responding to this question as effectively as possible,” he said.

Woolf said it’s important to recognize that stress and mental illness are two different aspects of life and the University is working to respond to all situations involving mental health and wellness.

A year ago, Woolf released a video regarding mental health after a string of student deaths. It was a time when the Queen’s community was “in mourning and, frankly, in shock,” Woolf said.

He added that he faced some criticism.

“The feedback was generally positive though some (fairly) pointed out that I neglected to distinguish in the video between ‘routine’ stress, depression and sadness and the more serious forms of mental illness,” he told the Journal.

At this point, Woolf couldn’t comment on specific recommendations the Principal’s Commission will bring forward.

“I don’t know what the recommendations will be,” he said. “Generally, I expect they will cover prevention, recognition and response.”

These are only three aspects of mental health spectrum that Dr. Mike Condra, director of Health, Counseling and Disability Services (HCDS), has been working to uphold.

In his 19 years as director of HCDS, Condra has seen significant changes in the state of mental health on campus.

Mental health is a problem on campuses nation-wide, Condra said. Queen’s isn’t unique in that respect.

But the gusto and enthusiasm for extra-curricular activities and academic success, he said, is what could potentially set this campus apart from others.

“Queen’s students bring a high level of dedication and intensity to their work,” he said. “We need to think a little bit about how much pressure there is on students from the environment.”

This is one of the main points Condra wants the Principal’s Commission to take into consideration.

He said the Commission hopes to create a better understanding of the relationship between a student’s life and vulnerability for mental health problems.

“It really is I think looking at an overall plan for the University in terms of the whole spectrum of what might be important in the area of mental health,” he said.

Through August to December of last year, Condra said there have been significant developments in the area of mental health, in terms of training for dons in residence and Orientation Roundtable training for Gaels.

Since then, the school has hired a new full-time mental health nurse, a new counselor in HCDS and increased counseling service hours amongst current employees in the School of Business and in residences.

Counseling accessibility for students has been a big focus at HCDS, Condra said, by making sure to assess if student problems require immediate attention.

If students need to be seen more regularly, HCDS helps to find them care within the Kingston community, he said.

When emotions like stress and loneliness take over a student’s life, that’s when it becomes a mental health problem, Condra said.

“Now you start to get into a cycle where that stuff starts to develop a life of its own and they are more socially withdrawn,” he said. “It’s gotten out of control, now it’s a mental health problem.”

Catherine Zulver, ArtSci ’14, said she’s just one student with one personal experience of mental health issues. She said the details of her personal struggle aren’t what need to be shared.

As a student who struggled through mental illness through high school and sought HCDS services upon coming to Queen’s, she said she’s witnessed a variety of stigmas surrounding mental illness on campus — one of them being a misunderstanding of the very word.

“There’s stigma around the word stigma,” Zulver said. “The only way to fight it is to define it and then educate against it.”

Zulver referenced a class discussion on a film that depicted a man suffering from a form of mental illness.

A comment, made by a fellow student, suggested putting the man in an institution for observation.

“[It’s] treating mental illness as if it’s something scary,” she said. “The main stigma I’ve experienced is just that idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and creating this feared ‘other’ of someone who deals with mental illness.”

Zulver said a big problem she sees within the current health care system at Queen’s is the way in which students are initially responded to.

As HCDS currently operates, when a student calls they are asked whether their situation is urgent or not.

“People call for help not knowing necessarily what’s wrong,” she said.

“You can know something’s not familiar and you’re not yourself, but it doesn’t mean you know ‘this is what I have and this is how important it is.’”

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