O canada: take your mental health seriously and thrive

Oct. 10 was World Mental Health Day. From among the many themes we are encouraged to take note of or to remember throughout the year, this is one of these few that I embrace. The University of Waterloo has even announced the celebration of Thrive Month from Oct. 18 to Nov. 12, which marks a new step of public awareness to a pervasive problem.

Some may say that this is an unlikely topic of interest for me: I have been performing highly for decades, have been successful in taking good care of my children (admittedly, most credit should go to my wife) and I typically seek balance in my life. I have never asked for professional mental health support to come to grips with anxieties or depression. In short, I have been doing quite well. But I do not take this for granted. I am fully aware that this can change anytime. 

My official resume does not tell my full story. Some of my uncles had drinking problems, one of them even ending his life before I got a chance to meet him. I often wonder what their experience in World War II did to them, but I shall never know, because we barely ever talked about it. My dad was wild and fearless for most of his life, but in his fifties, much darkness of his childhood caught up with him in his nightmares, which forced him into early retirement; he was diagnosed and fired, but never treated. From among the large crowd of my cousins and siblings, most of them were able to work towards a ‘decent’ life. I could tell stories of great achievements, but many of them never explored their potential due to the pain they keep buried inside. I can only speculate about the demons that are haunting them. 

I could go on talking about friends and neighbors, and the message would be the same: mental health problems are a reality, and they are so in my immediate environment. The 1990s were transformative for me. I had just entered my 20s, it seems that I had to confront reality as a young grown-up. So many people in my closest environment happened to have their breakdowns, some knocked out for months, others suffering for years or even the rest of their lives. This was back in Germany, but I started seeing similar signs nearly everywhere I went. Not that I made it my quest to diagnose people with a challenged mental health, but I ever more often have the impression that intellectual or moralizing categories are insufficient to explain a certain action (or inaction). What might seem to be an unpleasant or dysfunctional temporary mood to the superficial gaze often appears to me as an underlying mental health condition. 

When I moved to Canada in 2009, I thought that the overall social and mental health situation was better here than in Europe. Canadians put so much emphasis on respect, diversity and inclusiveness, at so many levels of the social, political and educational system. This seemed to be promising a much healthier environment. It took some time for me to become aware of the open wounds of Canada’s colonial past and the impact on First Nations’ precarious mental health situation; it was easy to just ignore these in an affluent Waterloo environment . Irrespective of this problem, I quickly saw that so many of my students from all backgrounds are struggling, with mental and social instability being important factors. Between a third and half of my one-on-one time with students is directly or indirectly related to mental and social health issues一much more than previously in Germany. 

Initially, my perception was only anecdotal, though it became a recurring pattern in my professional life, and I gradually found data that underpin my assessment. The whole nation was shocked about the Woodstock Suicide Crisis that took away the lives of five highschoolers early in 2016. Based on data up to 2016, the Government of Canada website states that suicide is the second-most frequent cause of death among youth and young adults; it occurs three times as often among born Canadians as among immigrants. Thanks to the increased attention to this national (and global) emergency, the government of Ontario, local school boards and universities have stepped up their commitment to provide material resources in the fight against mental health problems. Despite such noteworthy improvements, youth suicide is still at a dauntingly high level. 

Obviously, there cannot be an easy fix for problems that are rooted so deeply in our modern and globalized Canadian society. The problem is not going away if we continue pretending that there is a mental health problem of individuals rather than of our society as a whole. We are indeed facing a true pandemic, not only in terms of the death toll. 

Small wonder that I feel attached to an initiative by UW Campus Wellness. Its organizers give out orange T-shirts that exhort us to “Thrive”, “Building Positive Mental Health for All”. The celebration of Mental Health Wellness Da” (or week, or month) has been recurring for many years now. I first took note of it in 2013, perhaps not coincidentally, because that was the year I had the fiercest struggles with negativity I could not easily shake off myself. Becoming one of the orange waves that were flooding our campus was truly energizing for me. 

Those days, the orange T-shirts still highlighted a different motto, raising awareness for the “1 in 5” Canadians affected by mental illness. The number itself even appeared as an understatement to me, while still being remarkably high for an official count. I was struck much more by the two words printed underneath: “ASK ME”. This I found truly bold, quite unexpected in our expertocratia in which we are advised to swiftly direct people in need to those who have a diploma for dealing with their specific concerns. Would I become an expert of mental health by putting on this T-Shirt? 

No, certainly not! Me posing as a trained counsellor going by the book is not what students turning to me would expect一or even want. Many of them already know the professional script that often did not work for them. They appreciate a pair of listening and compassionate ears, and I sometimes surprise them by sharing my own personal experience if their story brings it up in me. In such situations, we are no longer sitting together as prof and student, but are facing each other human to human. For sure, this is unprofessional and entails some risks, but is it not what being human is about? Taking risks for the good that we strive for? 

Wearing the orange T-shirt on and off campus has given me more courage to tell my story, whether to friends at a Thanksgiving Dinner or to a class of students expecting a lecture on Greek History. It has given me more opportunities to listen to others’ stories. Every story told can be inspiring hope or unveiling demons, making them more palatable and one day hopefully manageable. All are invited to join, by wearing orange, by opening eyes and ears, by beginning to tell their own stories.