By Annie Arnone
Two years ago, Jan* sat in her English class, horrified as her professor called the names of each student, one by one, to come up to the front and submit their essays.
Jan’s professor was aware of her academic accommodations and agreed to collect her paper on a later date, but she expected the professor would forget. Minutes later, when her name was called, her heart sank.
She could feel people around her staring. Fumbling her words and mortified at the situation, all she could say was “I don’t have it.” It was then that her professor had remembered why.
Before this incident, Jan kept quiet about her mental health. But in that moment, when she was singled out, she believed everyone thought something was wrong with her. “Why did you get an extension?” her classmates asked. “What happened?”
The third-year criminology student was given an official diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in 2012, and since, she has also faced complications with anxiety and depressive disorder. In addition to her struggle with academic accommodation at Ryerson, Jan has faced discrimination in the workplace based on her mental illness. Despite her inability to balance her mental health, school work and job as a receptionist, Jan continued to juggle all three out of fear of looking like a failure.
Twenty per cent of all Canadians will be affected by mental health in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). But students are especially vulnerable to complications with their mental health. According to a survey done at the University of Alberta, about 51 per cent of students said they’d felt hopelessness and overwhelming anxiety in their school year.
Bell Let’s Talk day was on Jan. 25, but a lot of people still aren’t talking—even those who are limit their discussion to one day each year.
Jan feels that there is a large difference between talking about mental illness and understanding it.
“Education on the matter of mental illness is important,” she said. “But people’s lack of understanding is what makes them less empathetic. It goes beyond, ‘Hey, you can talk to me’ and should be, ‘Hey, I understand.’”
Jan attributes this lack of knowledge to campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk, which address disorders like depression or anxiety but neglects things like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia in advertisements.
“When everyone looked at me, I felt like something was wrong with me,” said Jan. “I don’t like people knowing that I need extra help, or extra time.” The stares she received reinforced that feeling for her, too.
Dr. Jon Goldin, a psychiatrist specializing in adolescent mental health, said in a Huffington Post article that encouraging conversation is just a start. “So much more needs to be done.”
“We need a more holistic approach where teachers see supporting pupil mental health as being equally important as teaching literacy or numeracy,” he said.
Third-year aerospace engineering student, Shayan Yazdanpanah spoke at the Voices of Experience: Mental Health and Resilience panel at Ryerson on Jan. 25, addressing the struggles that students like him face with their mental health, every day.
“You’re expected to be a student when you come to campus, you’re not expected to be a ‘whole person’ and you check all your baggage at the door when you leave in the morning, as a result,” he said.
Yazdanpanah is involved with a number of organizations on campus involving mental health, including Rams Let’s Talk—a yearly initiative similar to Bell Let’s Talk where 15 cents is raised to various mental health clinics in Toronto for every tweet including the hashtag #RamsLetsTalk.
He also does school talks across the city with Jack.org—a youth-led group who organize school talks and initiatives to speak up about mental health.
“It’s so important to give a student voice to those who are struggling,” he said. “We hear all the time that ‘Many are going through the same thing,’ but people really are going through the exact same thing and we need to talk and care for one another.”
*Last name has been removed for privacy reasons.