By Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai
For some reason, mental health days aren’t taken seriously. People take sick days all the time, whether or not they actually need them. But when someone takes a mental health day that’s truly necessary, the response from classmates will probably sound something like, “You’re full of sh*t — pull yourself together and get to class.”
A photo of Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai. (Alysia Burdi/Ryersonian Staff)
According to Sarah Thompson, clinical coordinator at Ryerson’s Centre for Counselling and Student Development, this stigma comes from our perception of emotions. “In Western or North American culture, the predominate view is that being emotional means irrationality or weakness,” she says.
Jesmen Mendoza, a counsellor at Ryerson, says how we define mental health compounds the issue. “I view mental health as less about being mentally ill, and more about the mental wellbeing that someone has.” Differentiating between the two is key.
For the people taking them, a mental health day isn’t a get-out-of-class-free card. It’s a day to gather their thoughts, breathe and remind themselves that it’s going to be OK. With an ever growing stigma surrounding all things mental health related, it’s problematic to brush it off as something that isn’t real.
Trust me, the issue is real.
The Canadian Mental Health Association says mental health disorders are highest in those between the ages of 15 and 24. Canada also has the third-highest youth suicide rate in the industrialized world. In the 2012 Maclean’s article, “The mental health crisis on campus,” Kate Lunau noted a 200 per cent increase in demand from Ryerson students in crisis situations at our Centre for Student Development and Counselling in the preceding year. I can keep going, but I think the picture is clear. We all go about our days on campus, not realizing how many students experience anxiety, depression or panic attacks.
According to Will Huggon, a psychology professor at Ryerson, the disconnect between saying one supports mental health days and actually doing it happens because of how our motivations are aligned. “If you have the external motivation that you don’t want to look bad, your internal mechanism isn’t going to change,” he says. To be clear, he says that saying “yeah right” to mental health days or “do happy things if you’re depressed” is about the same as saying, “don’t have cancer” to cancer patients.
I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. It’s impossible for anyone to know each and every fellow Ryerson student that struggles with some form of mental illness, diagnosed or not.
I have anxiety myself. Sometimes my stress gets to the point where I freeze, start shaking and, in worst-case scenarios, collapse. It’s debilitating. In the middle of a panic attack, not being able to control my feelings makes me feel like I’m losing my mind.
It’s hard to talk about something so deeply personal.
It’s even harder when people disregard it.
Not offering a network of support is critically detrimental. “Community is very important: shared experiences, feeling like we belong,” says Mendoza. So, if someone says they need a mental health day, listen and listen without judgement. “We’re a much more inquisitive society and we ask more questions, when instead we need to empathize,” says Mendoza. Thompson suggests reframing the message and then actually living by it to achieve this.
That one day off can be the difference between someone crashing, or soaring.