When I took on the position of Mental Health Director of the Woodsworth College Students’ Association (WCSA), I knew that I wanted to help students by attempting to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health on campus. What I did not realize at the time was exactly how pervasive that stigma was — even within my own family.
When I visited our family doctor in the 10th grade for low mood and exhaustion, my doctor asked a common question: “Is there a family history of depression?” To my surprise, my father did not provide a clear-cut answer. At the time, I assumed the answer as to a family history was simply “no.” But instead, my father said, “not diagnosed.”
It wasn’t until my first year of university, when my brother left university due to mental health issues, that my family finally came clean about our complicated past. It was only after my brother spoke openly about his mental health that I discovered that another member of my family had taken a similar leave from university for the same reason almost three decades earlier. Under these circumstances, I learned that other members of my family have faced lifelong battles with mental illness, often without diagnosis.
In some ways, it seems perfectly normal to shelter your children from your family’s history of mental illness and to protect your family members’ privacy. In other ways, I can’t help but view my family’s silence as another limb of a deeply-rooted societal problem: the stigma around mental illness is what really prevented discussions from ever taking place. What saddens me most about this story is that the shame and stigma that my family members faced in the past is still present today. Archaic policies such as U of T’s mandated leave of absence policy seem to demonstrate the unwillingness of institutions to evolve and better accommodate mental health.
My family’s practice of silence is not unique, and parallels a greater legacy of stigmatizing and trivializing mental illness. Shame and fear have long kept those facing mental health issues from reaching out for help and family members from recognizing signs of mental illness or understanding how to offer support. The more that families sweep their history under the rug, the more difficult the topic of mental health becomes. The more we are taught to hide or be ashamed of our families’ histories, the less likely we are to be comfortable addressing our own mental health. We are taught by example, and we are taught shame through silence.
If families can bridge such difficult waters as explaining sex and consent to their children, why can’t they make room for a topic as important as mental health? Parents should have this ‘talk’ and disclose mental illness in the family to their children. As more studies demonstrate that genetic factors play a role in the likelihood of developing depression and other mood disorders, there is even more evidence for the case that families should be open about their histories of mental health issues. Just like every important topic that a family discusses, having a mental health talk doesn’t have to end with a single conversation — it can be the start of an ongoing dialogue.
So let’s talk, not just one day a year under a corporate hashtag, but often, with our families and our friends. Let’s normalize this discussion, no matter how challenging it is, and let’s listen earnestly and without judgment. We can’t hide the realities of our lineages any longer — nor should we want to. We can’t simply hope that our children will never face mental health issues and will never need to know the triggers in their own DNA.
With the approval of U of T’s mandated leave of absence policy, we, as students, may feel that we simply do not have the power to change discriminatory institutions, much less a discriminatory society. But I hope that in 10 or 15 years, when we are raising the next generation, we remember the difference that a conversation can make — and the even larger impact of creating continuous dialogue.
It is never too late to start a conversation with our families, and it is never the wrong time to offer or reach out for support. Together, we can be the generation that chooses not to keep our families’ secrets and decides instead to uproot decades of silence and stigma by speaking openly about mental health.
Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is the Mental Health Director at the WCSA.