October, I came to know recently, is mental health awareness month. My children, and probably all around the world, call it “Halloween” month, which always hurts because I expected it to be the “mummy’s birthday” month. Nevertheless, I understand. I was always meant to lose to Halloween. They don’t get to wear scary costumes or stuff their faces with sweets on my birthday. So, I’ve accepted coming second to Halloween. Yet, I never expected mental health awareness events to be scarier than any Halloween costume I saw.
My university decided to host an educational workshop for faculty to raise awareness of mental health issues. I was excited to see what would be discussed. Will the workshop cover issues about psychoanalysis, neo-analysis, cognitive or humanistic paradigms and how they relate to learning? Will it cover the impact of elevated levels of online connectivity on students’ well-being and preparedness to learn? Or will it cover the current educational milieu that focuses more on skill-based learning rather than cultivating students’ excellence? Yet, none of those issues was broached.
The workshop mainly focused on how we, the faculty, should accommodate students’ mental health issues. Fair enough, if a student is suffering from mental health problems, then it is the adult’s responsibility to address the needs of that student. My problem wasn’t with the duty to respond to students’ needs regardless of which category these needs fall in. My issue was with the blanket definition of mental health issues that effectively makes every single person unwell.
Examples of anxiety-inducing stimuli that negatively impacted students’ mental health ranged from being homesick, dealing with extra workload, and enduring a long and stressful commute. I mean, we live in Cairo. For goodness’ sake, being on the road is a long, arduous and risk-ridden quest to get to your destination. What allowances are we exactly meant to provide for students to alleviate the pressure of the commute or their education?
I then realized that mental health awareness isn’t about dealing with people who struggle with mental health. It was about convincing everyone that they already have mental health problems. The narrative is that we should all be understanding, empathetic, and conducive to proper behavior when a young person tells their teacher that they are stressed because of their education or the congested streets. In a nutshell, it was about telling young people that everyday events that they will encounter in their daily lives are insurmountable hurdles.
It was perfectly reasonable and acceptable to escape from one’s duties and responsibilities if they caused too much stress. It is about cultivating feeble minds and fatalistic personalities. Not to mention that the dilution of the term mental health issues to encompass every fleeting negative emotion a person can encounter, fundamental issues will never get the attention that it deserves. If being sick is the new norm, the genuinely struggling ones won’t get the assistance needed to get better.
According to the workshop facilitator, our role as adults is to affirm our students’ emotional distress and accommodate them accordingly. And affirm has become such a loaded word. We should affirm people’s chosen gender, affirm their choices even if we believe them to be huge mistakes, and affirm that everyday emotional struggles should render them incapable of handling reality.
We have a saying that my mother used to recount to me as a teenager when I would fly into a fit, and she would refuse to budge on something she believed wrong. The wisdom of this saying is something we genuinely miss today, both in parenting and education. It’s better to have someone who makes you cry and cries for you than someone who makes you laugh and makes others laugh at you.
It amazes me that no one could see how all these senseless affirmations are actively detaching young people from meaningful participation within society. How can it be that no one can perceive blind assertions eventually leading to the effective dissolution of families, communities, and nations? That we will affirm one lie after another until the truth can no longer be witnessed.
After the workshop, I remember the children’s story of the boy who cried wolf. I thought if this story was written nowadays, would other people in his village dare to call him a liar, or would they nod their heads affirming? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is this. I’ve accepted my defeat by Halloween. But when it comes to mental health awareness, October will always be mine.