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“Education is the passport to the future”: On Mental Health, Privilege and Access in Academia

January 20th, 2015     by Nadia Siu Van     Comments

Is the treatment of mental health in academia a serious structural issue rather than an anecdotal one? And if so, why is no one discussing it? PhD Candidate Melonie Fullick asked these pertinent questions in her 2011 article on the “culture of oppressive silence” around depression and attrition in both undergraduate and graduate education.

In her recent article, Fullick talks about how mainstream media outlets continue to perpetuate superficial views and perspectives on mental health in academia. What’s problematic about these conversations, as Fullick and @JessicaRdctd both point out, is that they conflate short-term stress effects with mental health issues, focusing on personality traits like perfectionism and having “unrealistic expectations,” and offering tactics (some of which are inaccessible) for students to cope with stress.

What this mentality ignores is the underlying systemic, institutional and societal issues that affect mental health. It’s the false notion that we all enter the ivory tower under the same conditions, on equal footing and with equal opportunity (for many others, such as Indigenous people and youth living in poverty, access to the ivory tower remains an issue). It’s the false notion that if you can’t cope with the pressure, it’s because you didn’t put in enough effort or work as hard as your colleagues. Or, as @JessicaRdctd says, that your problems boil down to a failing on your own part, and can be solved by doing yoga and petting cute puppies (clearly, you were doing it wrong this entire time).

This not only trivializes the experience of students that are forced to navigate the world differently as a result of institutional discrimination and failure, but also uses language that reeks of privilege. Such language denies the existence of those living with disabilities and chronic illnesses (or who have close family members who have disabilities or chronic illnesses), financial hardships, dependents, as well as those living on the margins.

The solutions found in media coverage of mental health sound simple enough – if the issue is stress, then find stress-reducing activities. What this downplays is the unequal distribution of resources available to students when dealing with the demands of attaining an education. One of the biggest concerns with the postsecondary system (and elementary through high school systems as well) is caused by the huge wealth gap in Canada, which makes it more difficult for children coming from poor families to do well in school. What these media outlets assume is that taking a leisurely walk is an applicable solution for students who are stressed about not having enough money for their next meal, or for those who experience domestic violence and abuse within the home. While self-care is incredibly important, we have yet to find an empathetic and culturally relevant way to talk about it.

A friend and former classmate of mine, Lena (not her real name), was diagnosed with severe clinical depression in high school, and the constant verbal and physical abuse from her parents only exacerbated the situation as she entered college. Despite being exceptionally talented and never missing a single project deadline, Lena’s marks suffered because she was absent for a few classes during these depressive episodes. The professor told her that there would be no exception to the participation rule, as it would be unfair to other students. Lena agreed to take the penalty, but also disclosed her circumstances to this trusted professor – she wanted her mentor to know that the classes were missed for a reason. To her surprise, Lena was dismissed for being “too sensitive” and was referred to counselling services to “talk through” the abuse. Her professor’s last words of advice? “Move on.”

The counselor was more understanding, but focused too much on trying to comprehend why the specific type of verbal abuse that Lena experienced was even a “legitimate” form of verbal abuse. There was also the assumption that Lena tried to play the pity card and failed, even though she had already accepted the grade penalty and wasn’t planning on taking any action to petition against her professor’s decision. The question puzzling the counselor was “Why come forward now? It must be something she made up.”

Coming from a similar East Asian background, I understood why Lena kept the issue to herself – for many, language barriers and cultural stigma pose additional obstacles to accessing mental health care. I also understood the cultural significance behind her parents’ hurtful words, as they stemmed from the very things that we were taught to value. Unfortunately, Lena spent more time trying to explain why the verbal abuse was considered verbal abuse, rather than getting any kind of “help” from this clueless counselor.

The embarrassment of reaching out eventually caused her to drop out for some time which, in a way, is a privilege in its own right. For some students – such as those of lower-income background who count on attaining education as a means to improving their lives and the lives of their families – taking a break from academia isn’t financially feasible. This is especially true when the cost of tuition is so high and on the rise, creating further financial barriers for those who are already struggling to meet basic needs.

Sara Ahmed sums up this feeling of futility that marginalized people face very well in her article “Feeling Depleted?

Diversity work is emotional work because in part it is work that has to be repeated, again and again. You encounter a brick wall. Even when a new diversity policy is adopted somehow things stay in place; they keep their place […] To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution seems open, committed and diverse: as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement. Things appear fluid. I have said this before: things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing. We can reflect on the significance of frustration here: it is not only that the wall keeps its place, but those who don’t come against it, don’t notice it. This can be profoundly alienating as an institutional experience. No wonder that when the wall keeps its place, it is you that becomes sore.

The issue of who has access to education – and who doesn’t – is clearly reflected in how an institution favours a student who doesn’t need anything “extra” from the university, as Fullick points out. I firmly believe that every student deserves to have equal access to education in a positive learning environment. We do need to pay attention to this topic as an issue of social justice, where the system amplifies existing inequalities while creating new ones further down the road, especially when navigating the job market. If education is, as Malcolm X says, the passport to the future, then only the privileged will soar.

Tags: body politics

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