In my undergraduate research, I created and distributed a survey for my honours thesis in Acadia’s sociology program. In it, I questioned how students felt about Acadia’s student counselling services. More specifically, I sought to understand whether students felt this service provided adequate treatment. My findings concluded that the counselling services were created for students with minor to moderate mental health issues. In my open-ended question, students with eating disorders, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Bipolar Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and psychotic disorders wrote that the counselling services were not designed to treat their severe mental illnesses. As a result, many of these students either spent a considerable amount of money to seek treatment off campus or received no treatment at all.
I’m not suggesting that this service wasn’t successful in meeting other students’ needs—the service is designed for students who face minor to moderate mental health problems; stress from a large academic workload, relationship issues, and adjusting to new responsibilities associated with being a university student. In fact, I was informed by the head of the counselling services that their treatment is designed to meet the needs of the majority of students, and that the majority of students do not have severe mental illnesses. While this is true, I still couldn’t help but feel affronted by this statement. I am an individual with a severe mental illness. I am a part of the minority that the services exclude. Am I not important? Are the opinions and work of individuals with severe mental illnesses not a valuable contribution?
This line of questioning led me to question how we, as a society, conceptualize severe mental illness. More importantly, I questioned how individuals in power define severe mental illness, and what these definitions mean for individuals living with them. This focus on power and definitions led to my interest in mental health policy, and more specifically how severe mental illness fits into various levels of government policies. My research questions are: How do Nova Scotia policy makers define severe mental illness? How do definitions of severe mental illness influence the creation and implementation of mental health policies? I am particularly interested in how the provincial government includes, or fails to include, the needs of individuals whose mental health issues are severe and debilitating in their day-to-day life. Furthermore, I want to understand how the provincial government defines severe mental illness when compared to minor and moderate mental health issues, and how this impacts their policies. I intend to explore these questions using qualitative methods, which include conducting an Intersectionality-Based Policy Analysis (IBPA) of Nova Scotia’s three most current mental health strategies, and a section of legislation entitled Bill 109—the Mental Health Act. I will also interview fifteen individuals who work as policy makers, mental health professionals, and members of mental health Non-Profit Organizations (NGOs). Once all of my data is collected and analyzed, my goal is to define my thesis in April of 2020.
As a graduate student in sociology, I have had to defend my sociological study of severe mental illness. I often get asked why I didn’t pursue a degree in psychology. Here is my answer to curious readers: mental health and illness is a sociological issue. I am not interested in studying mental health and illness through pathology and neuroscience. I want to understand how severe mental illness is socially constructed and understood across society. Individuals with severe mental illness were perceived as “deviant” and “crazy” in the 1950’s, during the age of the “asylum”. Today, on the other hand, we openly discuss mental health and illness as a universal issue during events like Bell Let’s Talk. I am interested in how our society’s conception of mental health and mental illness is shifting, and how this shift is reflected in health policy. This research is important because individuals with severe mental illness are a vulnerable population and are at times overlooked due to their small numbers. It is important to ensure that their needs are being met.