Speak Magazine

Ottawa Features

Challenging misconceptions about mental illness

By KILIAN SCHLEMMER

“I wish I had a cast,” says Michael Robinson. “I wish I had some type of physical ailment that is socially acceptable.”

Robinson sits on a padded bench in the atrium of a building on the University of Ottawa campus. It’s Saturday afternoon, and the building is empty and quiet, causing his voice to echo off the cement floor and walls. When he talks about mental illness, both his tone and his facial expression get serious.

Robinson is a 20-year-old student at the University of Ottawa. In his short time there, he has gained a reputation for being a strong advocate for people with disabilities. His advocacy is largely focused on mental health issues, an area which he says is  widely misunderstood in society.

When asked what fuels his passion for mental health advocacy, he is quick to bring up one specific problem.  For Robinson, the way many people react to mental illness needs to be changed.

“You get this reaction of fear, of misunderstanding,” says Robinson. “That’s what fuels it, to completely eradicate this misunderstanding.”

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ont., Robinson came to the University of Ottawa in 2010. In his first year at university, he volunteered with the Ottawa Mission, which sparked his interest in advocacy. Working with the mission exposed him to some of the hardships that people with mental illness face in Ottawa.

“That was a good place to just get a reality check of my situation,” says Robinson. Shortly after, in his second year at the university, Robinson joined the Student Federation’s Accessibility Committee.

One of Robinson’s personal projects has to do with the university’s social scene. The University of Ottawa’s frosh week is “wet,” meaning that alcohol consumption is a part of the orientation activities. When Robinson arrived at the university, he realized frosh week was not accessible for all students.

“When you have a lot of events for first-year students based on the consumption of alcohol, you have some students with mental health illnesses, who may be taking medication for their illness,” says Robinson. “They can’t partake in those activities without serious health consequences.”

Robinson deals with his own stress and anxiety issues on a daily basis. In his Dr. John Davis Burton Award acceptance speech, Robinson described his stress and anxiety as his “hidden disability.” For someone who is meeting Robinson for the first time, “hidden disability” is a suitable term.

In conversation, Robinson is a well-spoken young man who displays formidable intelligence and determination, not stress and anxiety. It is the misconceptions about people with mental illnesses that bother him the most.

“Misunderstandings are painful when you have people who judge you for something they have no idea about,” says Robinson. “We use words like crazy or stupid. I’m always the elephant in the room who says hey, we don’t need to use that language.”

Mental health had been a dominant topic in the media after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14. But Robinson says the conversations in the media can sometimes be harmful for mental health advocacy.

“Society is looking at mental illness as being an excuse for people to commit atrocities,” says Robinson. “That really paints people with mental illness all in the same light.”

When Robinson speaks about society’s general attitude towards mental health, he makes his intentions known. His goal is to remove the negative perceptions of mental illness from people’s minds, but he says that fragile times like these can make that goal difficult to achieve.

Despite dealing with stress while advocating for mental health issues, Robinson says he is determined to better both his own mental health situation, as well as the situations of those around him. In his award acceptance speech, Robinson wrote that his journey is just beginning.

“I remind myself that this period of my life, the most difficult yet, is just a part of my story, and I know there are many chapters left to be written.”

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