Dr. Stan Kutcher provided some straight-forward talk and clarification on the subject of mental health as the keynote speaker for the latest President’s Colloquium at St. F.X.
Under the heading Positive Mental Health and Resilience, the colloquium took place March 28 and featured Kutcher who is the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health and Director World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Mental Health Policy and Training. His talk was titled Positive Mental Health: The What and the What Not.
Amongst his talk regarding focusing mental health discussions, Kutcher noted the language and phrases which are so often used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be, or even used at all.
“I think because people just don’t understand,” he said, in talking to reporters at the conclusion of the event.
“It’s a relatively new area and people are struggling with the language to use. With all good intentions, people want to avoid harming others so, I think, many people think when they don’t use words like depression or anorexia nervosa or obsessive compulsive disorder or schizophrenia, when they don’t use those words, they’re actually being helpful to people. So they use things like ‘mental health issue’ or ‘mental wellness problem’ … that doesn’t help anybody.
“And I think there has been, in my opinion, I don’t have any data on this, an Americanization of a lot of our media … everything is Fox News, it’s CNN. Everything is a tsunami, not it’s a wave actually … there is a big difference. I think people tend to get over-enthusiastic about the headlines and the message gets lost.”
Kutcher displayed one such recent headline which suggested there is a mental health crisis/epidemic amongst Canadian high school and university students.
“There is no epidemic of mental illness for crying out loud,” Kutcher said.
“We have the same proportion of mental illness in our society now that we had 40, 50, 60 years ago. There is no epidemic of illness, there is better recognition of illness, which is good but what we’re seeing now is an epidemic of ‘I think I have a mental disorder when I’m just really feeling unhappy,’ and that is a direct reflection of poor mental health literacy.”
Using another example, Kutcher talked about reading a story in a Maritime focused magazine which talked about depression being a ‘teenage fad.’
“Now depression happens in adolescents and depression is a serious disease and if you have depression you need the proper treatment for depression, but feeling unhappy, that’s not depression,” he said.
“So I think a lot of people have become confused with all the talk about mental health and mental illness without the literacy to understand what they’re talking about.”
Kutcher also debunked notions around distress/ stress being all bad.
“People do have daily distress, that is normal, ubiquitous, necessary and good for you,” he said.
“And all of us are going to have a mental health problem like the loss of a loved one, moving to a new city, losing your job – those are substantive challenges in our lives and we need extra help for that. But those two things aren’t mental illnesses and they don’t need to be medicalized, they don’t need medications, they don’t need specialized psychotherapy, they don’t need access to the mental health care system.
“They can be dealt with, the first one, mental distress, by yourself with your friends. The second one with special support, sometimes counselors, sometimes your clergy, whoever.
“Mental illnesses are different; they need specialized treatment like a treatment for any illness. But one of the challenges we have is that socially we’re tending to confuse mental distress and mental health problems with mental illness. So, because I feel unhappy today I feel like I should have therapy, because I take umbrage at what you said to me I have an anxiety disorder, that’s not true at all.
“We have to be very careful to differentiate the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in real life which we have to learn to deal with and overcome, and for which we don’t need treatment, and those things which actually require treatment.”
St. F.X. President Kent MacDonald talked about the topic for the colloquium and having Kutcher as the speaker.
“This whole issue of mental health is so important on university campuses across the country and this topic, like others, we’re trying to take more seriously to build off the number of things we’re doing already on campus,” MacDonald said.
“So to bring an international expert like Dr. Kutcher together with our faculty, staff and, most importantly, our students, to try and get at this notion of mental health, is really important for St. F.X. We don’t have all of the answers but I do think we have some things in place and, after this evening, I think we walk away with more ideas on what it is we need to do as a university community in terms of this complex notion called mental health.”
MacDonald said the colloquiums will continue and, like this latest one which took place in Riley Hall, will be held in residences.
“You can rest assured we’ll continue these and within the residences,” he said. “That aspect is important for me. We could have had this anywhere and probably in spaces a little larger, had more people, but it’s important for one of my three priorities for academic excellences and that is to redefine what residences means here at StFX, and by having a really interesting topic like this, within a residence, I think makes people realize the residences are really part of the academic experience at St. F.X.”