Vacation is not a treatment

Despite claims, a fall reading week has little to do with mental health

I fully support an UMSU campaign on mental health. Public health insurance does not fund most mental health services, particularly preventive ones. The university offers limited student counselling, but it’s not the university’s role to operate as a pseudo-healthcare system. As such, students may be unable to access the care they need when they need it.

But what is mental health? Unfortunately, the UMSU campaign does not offer a definition. While the sexual assault and accessibility campaigns both define their principal subject matter, the mental health campaign does not. By not starting with a coherent definition of mental health, the campaign strays from its original focus.

Definitions of mental health can go two ways. A progressive definition likens mental health to a state of well-being. Mental health is an ability of people to enjoy life and overcome challenges. A more practical definition of mental health is the absence of mental illness. If you’re not sick, you’re healthy. Depending on the definition used, a mental health campaign can be very broad, or very focused.

“Success Through Wellness”, the University of Manitoba’s 2014 campus mental health strategy, is an example of how over-inclusive a campaign can be when mental health is equated to well-being. The university’s campaign favours the progressive definition of mental health as well-being. In fact, it goes so far as to use the terms mental health, well-being, and wellness interchangeably.

Most of the university campaign’s recommendations to improve mental health are reasonable, but some suggestions like increased campus beautification and increased student involvement in curricular content are a stretch.

Given that UMSU has fewer resources than the university, its campaign has to be more focused than the university’s. UMSU doesn’t have the capacity to implement peripherally related projects like campus beautification.

To its credit, the UMSU campaign is largely focused on the prevention and treatment of mental illness. For prevention, the campaign promotes the activities of the student group Active Minds. These activities include public awareness campaigns to reduce stigma and promote self-care behaviours like mindfulness. For treatment, the campaign promotes university counselling services, and expands the peer support program.

But then the campaign includes the fall mental health reading week. This was originally an election promise of Your UMSU, sold as a chance for students to “relax and rejuvenate their minds” before final exams.

In reality, a fall reading week and its mind rejuvenation ability is not a core mental health intervention so much as it is an excuse for a vacation. Just because you call something a “fall mental health reading week,” doesn’t mean it’s actually relevant to mental health.

A fall reading week is an example what can creep into a mental health campaign that does not start with a concrete definition. Its inclusion hurts the entire campaign by distracting from the real mental health initiatives.

A mental health campaign is a must. But a campaign on mental health actually needs to be about mental health. A campaign needs to start with a coherent definition so that it maintains focus and avoids peripheral projects like a fall reading week.