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Op-ed: Why all families should have ‘the talk’ — and I don’t mean about sex

Mental illness hits close to home, and that’s where the conversation should start

Op-ed: Why all families should have ‘the talk’ — and I don’t mean about sex

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.

Privacy comes with a price

Revisions to York University's mental health policy may do more harm than good

Privacy comes with a price

According to The Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, there has been a 67 per cent increase in the number of post-secondary students registered with a mental health disability between 2006 and 2011.

Recently, York University student Navi Dhanota won a two-year human rights complaint against York University. The policy in question required a student to declare their mental health disability in order to register for academic support. 

Possibly blinded by Dhanota’s own best intentions, Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane is describing the recent abolition of this policy as “a win for students.” On a broader scale, however, this change in policy has the potential to do more harm than good.

The revision of the academic accommodation policy that Dhanota, ARCH Disability Law Centre, and York University settled on undoubtedly coincides with the Ontario Human Rights Code. It upholds a student’s right to personal privacy and can be seen as a way to prevent discrimination based on mental health. 

When it comes to mental health, however, clinging onto every ounce of privacy may not be the best solution for providing students with accommodations. Marc Wilchesky, executive director of Counselling and Disability Services at York University, has already expressed concern over the complications this change in policy could create. In an interview with the Toronto Star, he stated, “…[I]t may make it a little more difficult to come up with the appropriate accommodation.”

Previously, like many other Canadian universities, York relied on the defining terms outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to register a student for academic support. These diagnoses are not merely labels meant to generically categorize individuals; instead, they act as a starting point for professionals to determine a student’s personal needs. 

Without them, specialists like Wilchesky are left to work backwards, most likely retracing steps that have already been taken and rehashing paths that have already been discarded. Ultimately, these definitions act as a foundational base that can accelerate the provision and efficiency of accessibility services. 

Aside from providing necessary information, detailed registration packages are also the first step in eliminating potential abuse of an accessibility services system. Basically, York has created a more lenient policy for a department that can easily be targeted for misuse. Also, York now provides interim accommodation, which allows students who are pending assessment to access this service as well. The conjunction of these two factors can result in the misuse of this new policy, which would hinder the students that it was meant to protect in the first place. 

Confident that the Ontario Human Rights Commission “has enough power and influence,” Mandhane is now urging other postsecondary institutions to follow suit and “bring their policies in line.” Hopefully, U of T’s Accessibility Services will fully consider the implications of such a change in policy before rushing to any conclusions. 

Instead of rewriting policies, it would be more beneficial for accessibility services departments to focus on creating environments where the ability to not disclose diagnoses is simply unnecessary. While this new privacy policy is perhaps helpful for students to cope in the meantime, it is necessary to keep in mind the more important longer term goal of socio-cultural change: that is, ensuring that our academic environments inspire enough comfort, safety, and open conversation to disclose diagnoses in the first place, not force students like Dhanota to respond with human rights complaints. 

York’s new policy is taking a step backwards in breaking down the social stigma surrounding mental health, in that it allows students to withhold the truth at a time when it should be expressed freely, when it can only be used advantageously. Mandhane wholeheartedly believes that this is “just one more step to destigmatizing,” but that is far from the truth; sadly, all she has managed to do is legally shove the elephant back in the room. 

Ariel Gomes is The Varsity‘s Associate Senior Copy Editor.