As an eager journalist of Minds Matter Magazine, I was more than a little excited to receive my first assignment topic which was “UTSC’s Perception of Mental Health, Physical Health and Mental Illness.” my first task as a journalist would be to gather the opinions of staff, faculty and students on these topics.

At the beginning, my thoughts were along the lines of, “Well, this should be a breeze.” So, armed with a pen and paper in one hand and an old audio recorder in the other, I was ready to take off and bombard the next UTSC person that I met with interview questions. Looking back now though, I can see that I may have underestimated this article. I was completely unprepared for what it had in store for me and soon realized that this article had its own plans in mind.

One of my first interviews was with Prof. Michael Lambek, the Departmental Chair of Anthropology, who provided an unexpected answer when I asked how he defines and views mental health. “I’m an academic,” Prof. Lambek states after pondering, “so I take definitions very seriously and I wouldn’t want to come off with one off the top of my head.” After a couple interviews, I found that Prof. Lambek wasn’t alone in his stance.

“I wouldn’t define it,” says Prof. David Fleet, the Departmental Chair of Computer Science and Mathematics, “If I really wanted a definition, I would contact someone who I think would be more knowledgeable and ask them for a reasonable definition. “With this, I can understand where they are coming from; as academics, their opinions can often have a strong influence within society so they must be careful with what they say.

However, it wasn’t just faculty who were struggling with these questions.

There was a lot of hesitance from the incoming first year students when asked about their perception of mental illness and mental health. Although, as I got more familiar with the topic, this is no longer became a surprise. “To say ‘mental’, it assumes that we know what the mind is,” Prof. Lambek says, “but it’s a really big puzzle – what the mind is and what is the relationship between the mind and the brain – and philosophers have very strong disagreements about those things.”

Even when looking at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which the Dean of Student Affairs, Mr. Desmond Pouyat, referred to as a “Bible of Mental Disorders”, there is a struggle to define mental health and mental illness as the DSM is continuously revised.

“There was a period of time in North America when homosexuality was called a disease, a mental illness,” Prof. Lambek explains that, “These things have been redefined, and just as some things have been in the ‘mental illness box’ there are some that have been pulled out over time, other things that were never in that box are being put in.”

However, as elusive as the definition of mental health and illness may be to society, we still manage to have a general understanding of how to maintain it. “Good health includes a balance between…the physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, social, and those elements coming into harmony,” Mr. Pouyat says while highlighting the importance of “developing a third eye to look at yourself and how you are and make adjustments, in terms of what it is [that] you’re needing, to get back that sense of wellbeing and balance in your life.”

Reflecting on this experience, I’m grateful that my interviews did not “follow the grand master plan” or my vague idea of what the ending article would be since, in my opinion, the most interesting articles are the ones that you don’t expect.

By: Serena Soleimani
Edited by: Allyssa Fernandez
Image by: Jenny Soriano

Categories: Articles