Dismantling the culture of silence: Mental health & race

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In November 2012, the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health released its final report with 116 recommendations for a mental health strategy at Queen’s. Of these recommendations, only a small portion (section 3.7: Vulnerable populations) address those who are socially marginalized and have greater experiences of stress.

The report fails to mention the clearly identified “culture of whiteness” at Queen’s, meaning a culture dominated and shaped by the attitudes, beliefs, and values of white men, first highlighted in the Henry Report, which was presented to Senate in 2006. The Report was commissioned to examine experiences of faculty members of colour at the University who consistently named the alienation, isolation and violence they experienced in a culture of whiteness.

While the Commission’s report names certain vulnerable factors, such as race, sexual orientation, ability and class, as responsible for higher risk of stress among students, it fails to identify how the culture and environment specific to Queen’s contributes to this heightened risk.

Queen’s itself is responsible for many of the mental health struggles of students of colour, Aboriginal students, disabled students and LGBTQ students.

The Henry Report was written in response to the departure of six visible minority faculty members who cited racism as their reason for their leaving. While the Report was published almost seven years ago, issues of racism persist on campus and contribute to mental health issues for
racialized students.

The Queen’s Coalition Against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination (QCRED) has regularly acted as a safe and inclusive space for students encountering racism in ways that prevents their experiences from being denied, silenced, or minimized. Specifically, QCRED holds Each One Teach One discussions, where students who participate often speak about how their peers fail to understand or even dismiss their experiences.

QCRED members have recommended that students experiencing mental health issues seek professional support as well. However, these students continue to cite misunderstanding or difficulty in relating their experiences of racism when they seek support, especially when seeing white counselors or therapists. In effect this can exacerbate mental health issues, increasing the level of anxiety and dismissal, which promotes silencing.

Formed in 2006, alongside the presentation of the Henry Report, QCRED was created by a coalition of students and faculty to address the presence of racism on campus and to create an
anti-racist environment for historically marginalized members of the Queen’s Community.
In the past, QCRED has lobbied to hold the administration accountable for the implementation of their recommendations from the Henry Report and the Diversity and Equity Task Force. QCRED has also sought meetings with Principal Woolf to discuss the work it does to support students of colour but has been repeatedly ignored.

The Commission’s report recommends the creation of spaces across campus that are safe, welcoming and inclusive especially for marginalized students. Though these safe spaces, like QCRED, CFRC Radio and OPIRG, exist, they rarely receive acknowledgment from the University community.
At its inception, QCRED was working to create an Inclusive Space Program — a workshop series in anti-racism designed to equip faculty, staff and students to deal with racism in the Queen’s community.

This project has never been fully pursued, largely because QCRED members are mostly
full-time students who need to juggle academic demands while dealing with experiences of racism. In effect, this is how the University consistently shirks the responsibility of supporting racialized students who do this kind of work.

Additionally, programs that receive administrative support, such as the Positive Space
Program — funded through the Human Rights Office at Queen’s — are often limited and fail to offer resources for students who experience the intersection of different types of discrimination. Though the Positive Space Program does acknowledge sexual diversity, it makes no mention of race as an important factor in determining social and academic experiences at Queen’s.

It’s imperative that when the University discusses strategies for moving forward they commit to supporting safe spaces in order to create a dialogue between the University and students to address the culture of silencing around sensitive issues like racism, mental health and how they intersect.
Addressing mental health issues requires a critical look at the practices and covert racist relations that ensue between students inside and outside of the classroom.

The Commission’s report does have numerous recommendations that will benefit many marginalized students who are struggling with depression and anxiety. For example it encourages the University to consider student workload consistency and balancing of assignments. This is an important step that must be supplemented by mutual responsibility from departments and the administration in the design of courses so they reflect and integrate diverse experiences and perspectives.

The Henry Report notes that the student academic culture at Queen’s can be hostile to material taught by faculty of colour, especially when that material deals with racism. QCRED believes and affirms that student accountability and respect for others in the classroom, as highlighted in the Report should also be part of the reflexive intellectual training that Queen’s prides itself upon. Clearly, the success of the Commission’s recommendations require a joint effort between the University and its students.

The need for dialogue around racism and mental health can’t be overemphasized since people have been raising the intersection of these two issues at Queen’s for more than a decade.

If the mental health of all students is to be respected, then the administration needs to revisit the Henry Report recommendations and the recommendations of the Diversity and Equity Task Force. If it doesn’t, this will inevitably lead to another round of unimplemented policy recommendations at Queen’s that will fail to address the issues of mental health and the marginalization of racialized and Aboriginal students.

The Queen’s Coalition Against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination is a student-run organization that deals with anti-racism on campus.

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