Mental health goes beyond academic stress

Campus mental health discussions should include the effects of oppression

Mental health discussions at Queen’s should include understandings of racism, sexism, homophobia and other oppressions.
Mental health discussions at Queen’s should include understandings of racism, sexism, homophobia and other oppressions.

Emily Wong, ArtSci ’15

Everyone has mental health. It’s something that’s been repeated countless times by mental health support groups on campus.

So far, the majority of discussions about mental health at Queen’s have centered on mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. It’s absolutely fantastic to see these conversations taking place.

But not everyone has experienced racism, poverty, sexual assault and a whole range of other social determinants. Those experiences play a critical role in affecting mental health, but they’re being left out of the conversation.

Dismissive attitudes around mental disorders and mental health issues can have absolutely devastating consequences, though certain anti-stigma campaigns have attempted to change these views on campus.

A number of mental health initiatives have arisen on campus in recent years, including the Mental Health Awareness Committee (MHAC), and Elephant in the Room — an ASUS-run initiative that ran an event in October which involved students holding up signs with a personal statement about mental health.

The sheer number of students involved in mental health advocacy and outreach is reflective of how far we’ve come – but there are still gaps in our approach to supporting mental health.

Thus far, the dialogue at Queen’s has focused on mental illnesses and the importance of academic support. What’s missing is a critical link to identities such as gender, sexuality, race and economic class.

The connection between social oppression and mental health is well established. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes socioeconomic and environmental factors as determinants of mental health. Mental health can be negatively impacted when we go through difficult personal circumstances, such as losing a loved one or failing a course.

What’s especially well documented at Queen’s is how academic stress can impact mental health. The 2012 Report of the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health mentions accommodations, proper scheduling and support services as issues that can impede students’ mental wellbeing.

School stress and extracurriculars can add up and become major stressors, even in the absence of biological determinants. This is true of social identity, as well.

Take, for example, the death of Leelah Alcorn in December. Leelah was a 17-year-old transgender girl from Ohio whose parents rejected her identity. In her suicide note, Leelah mentioned her parents’ unaccepting attitudes as a causational factor for her distress. Systemic transphobia was a major factor in harming her mental health.

These social issues are also present at Queen’s. In a discussion I had about Alcorn’s death, the person I spoke to cited an interaction they had with another student, who said trans people just need to “suck it up” when experiencing discrimination.

A friend of mine is a survivor of sexual assault. I can’t describe in words how painful it was for her to recount anecdotes about rape jokes being tossed around on her residence floor. Her struggle with mental health was so clearly impacted by her environment.

In November, I ran into another friend in Mackintosh-Corry Hall. This was around the time the “Black Lives Matter” protests were in full swing, to show solidarity with protestors in Ferguson, Missouri.

After I casually asked how his day was going, my friend — a black Queen’s student — said he had come from a tutorial where racist statements about black people were made, with students arguing that the onus was on Michael Brown for being shot and killed in Ferguson.

Later that week, we were discussing the incident again, and he said he drank quite heavily that night — not only because of comments in his tutorial, but because of the ongoing prevalence of racist remarks from other students he’s experienced on Queen’s campus.

“I can’t wait to get out of here — Queen’s isn’t good for my mental health,” he told me.

With so many students on campus dedicated to fighting stigma around mental health and supporting other students, it would be incredible to have that many students publicly support anti-racism, gender equity and trans rights as well.

Unless we advance our dialogue to include identity, we risk allowing whole populations of students to fall through the gaps that aren’t covered by only correlating mental illness with academic stress.

The Rehtaeh Parsons case highlights the importance of social support. Four boys raped Parsons, a girl from Nova Scotia, in 2011 — an assault she was constantly bullied about afterwards.

In his visit to Queen’s this November, Glen Canning — Rehtaeh’s father — spoke about how victim-blaming and bullying contributed to Rehtaeh hanging herself in April 2013, at age 17.

If we truly support conversations around mental health, it’s our responsibility to also support equity and anti-oppression. Talking about one type or cause of mental health disorders doesn’t mean we can’t also talk about others.

Incorporating a greater range of social determinants into our discussions of mental health will expand the extent of student outreach and positively contribute to a healthier, more inclusive campus community.

Integrating social identity into these conversations needs to happen at multiple levels. This can include in our everyday conversations, in educational settings and in the development of more University and student initiatives.

At the end of the day, this isn’t just about mental health. It’s about creating and maintaining a campus environment where every student can thrive.

Emily Wong is the AMS’s Social Issues Commissioner.

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