Supporting the marginalized

Panelist examines the Queen’s discussion paper on mental health and lack of concrete steps to build an inclusive community

Principal Daniel Woolf established the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health last year and their discussion paper was released this June.
Principal Daniel Woolf established the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health last year and their discussion paper was released this June.

Katie Conway, ArtSci ’13

In September of 2011, Principal Daniel Woolf established the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health and tasked it to create a discussion paper of recommendations addressing mental health issues at Queen’s. The Commission should be commended for its approach to mental health but it lacks actionable items regarding social identity and exclusion.

The draft report of the Commission, Towards a Mental Health Strategy for Queen’s, is as broad and far-reaching as the complex issue it seeks to address. When addressing mental health, it’s not enough to solely consider mental health services without examining the environmental factors which are causing more and more students to require said services.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

University students are in a precarious position when it comes to mental health as we’re facing situations which compromise our ability to cope with everyday stressors. During university life, students are faced with multiple transitions. From doing your own laundry to managing your own bills and academics, students face a transition ‘shock.’

In the context of Queen’s, the majority of us have left our social support systems of family and high school friends in our hometown, leaving us to build a new support system in an entirely new environment while dealing with persistent lifestyle and work pressures.

These are all factors which the discussion paper understands thoroughly. The paper’s strength is in its academic suggestions, such as improving on academic support services, implementing a universal accommodations policy for tests and exams and implementing staff mental health training. The Commission is particularly dedicated to supporting transitional periods for undergraduate students by providing additional programming.

Though it does recommend concrete and implementable solutions in the realms of academics and transitions, the paper falls short in providing clear initiatives which address social exclusion based on identity which contribute to mental health problems.

The WHO has identified gender discrimination, human rights violations and social exclusion to be factors associated with poor mental health. Marginalized students face particular challenges on campus. It can be incredibly difficult to build a support system when your community is fraught with ideologies and actions which deny your dignity and value as a person (such as sexism, racism, homophobia, etc).

It can be challenging to trust your peers enough to confide in them when they’ve shown derision to your religion, your ethnicity, your race or any other fundamental aspect of your identity. Monthly, weekly and even daily encounters with oppression and prejudice result in a persistent message across campus: “you’re different, you’re the other, you don’t belong here.” Many students who drop by the Social Issues Commission (SIC) have expressed feeling isolated and alienated from the Queen’s community due to persistent experiences with oppressive behaviour in our community. Too often, our discussion on mental health lacks an understanding of the importance of anti-oppression and equity in developing a healthy environment for mental health.

While the Principal’s Commission does recognize the importance of a “safe, welcoming and inclusive environment,” it doesn’t offer any concrete actions for the Queen’s community beyond increasing intercultural awareness training for staff and faculty.

Many programs which are targeted at creating a safe space on campus already exist — like the Positive Space program which has been in place since 1999 to establish safe spaces for queer students. Many offices and student groups at Queen’s participate in anti-oppression workshops dedicated to combating prejudice in our university community.

Many groups on campus also exist to create communities for marginalized individuals on campus — for example, the Education on Queer Issues Project.

Moving forward with the discussion paper, the University needs to consider how to support already existing initiatives and offices on campus, such as the Human Rights Office and the Equity Office, which are dedicated to creating a safe space on campus.

Mental health strategies can’t be complete without a demonstrated understanding of the importance of anti-oppression in creating an inclusive community. This understanding aids university students in adapting to a new environment and coping with stressors.

Katie Conway is the Social Issues Commissioner in the AMS.

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