Labelled as a student

Well here it goes….somebody has to blog about it.

I went back to do my PhD for very personal and professional reasons. I left a very well paying job to pursue my studies, knowing that our family would have to return to student life once again. I went back because I believed in the value of my health profession and the role of occupational therapy in advancing the greater good of individuals with chronic health conditions. My background is working as an occupational therapist in a community mental health setting. For six years, I worked along a wonderful team of health professionals to help transition people from institutional settings to the community. In my time working in the “real world”, I discovered this realm of a society that I was living in was not made to support many individuals with serious mental illness. I saw some great successes in my job, but it was the losses that made me come back to school. There was so much room for change in mental health service delivery, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to share this passion and potential for our profession with new upcoming OTs. I wanted to inspire new OTs to be advocates to break down the colossal mental health barriers built by stigma, intolerance, and ignorance.

I have now been given an incredible opportunity to teach the OT students.  In parallel with my studies, the school of Physical and Occupational Therapy has given me a chance to get my foot in the teaching door. This year I have met the most interesting students, shared my knowledge, and learned so much more from them. I learned that that despite their overly evident desire to help others, when it comes to discussing mental health, fear and stigma play a huge roles in informing the learning process.

One of my favourite patients was my finest teacher. She taught me to “label jam jars, not people”. I did not view her as the person with schizophrenia, but rather a woman with goals, dreams, and aspirations. My role as her therapist was to be a partner in her rehabilitation process and help her acquire the skills, information, and resources to help her set, attain, and maintain her goals. I now teach the OT students to take a very strength focused approach in working with people with mental illness, and get to know each person and understand them beyond the limitations of their illness. It is a beautiful thing to watch these walls slowly crumble with each class of 70 people I meet. I can objectively assess their performance by marking their assignments, but what I am really noticing is how they have changed as mature future clinicians who are aware of the importance of mental well-being on rehabilitation as a whole, and have the skills to empower those with the little voices and are the most vulnerable.

So, why the heck am I blogging about this???? In the last few sunny days, I have been outside to enjoy lunches, breaks, and extended procrastination periods. I have been surrounded by so many empowered students talking about solutions to change how they pay for their education. I admire their organization and passion, even though I am not entirely 100% supportive of their cause. I am also attentively listening to the public. Every morning I read two newspapers, browse through online news on the CBC, and listen to CJAD talk radio in traffic for an hour. The degree of intolerance that Montrealers have right now scares me. What I have noticed is that the students are being labelled. They are being labelled as selfish, disruptive brats who have no idea what the real world is.  I wonder how long this label will stick with the students and what it will take for our Montreal community to respect them (us) again. This battle will be long.

Yesterday’s demonstration was done so well, with peace and a purpose. I supported the students I teach who wanted to attend the protest, but I did not attend myself. I did not “strike” this week as my student society requested we did. What I did was continued teaching and writing my thesis during the day and talked extensively in the evenings about this movement with my family, co-workers, and friends. I acknowledged their fear and had lengthy discussions about their reasons for intolerance. I became aware of the lack of information on both sides. Of particular concern to me was the undesirable disinterest in learning about each other’s point of view.

What excited me about yesterday was the passion of the students. If approximately 100,000 came together like that in such an organized fashion, I think our community should be excited about who the future contributing members of this society are. However, to my fellow students, we owe it to the community of Montreal to respect the city that hosts us in our educational pursuit. We need to acknowledge their fear and show evidence that the label that is being placed upon us does not reflect each individual in the student community. In representing us “all”, please take the necessary steps to ensure that we work together to provide the information, skills, and resources to the community to understand the cause. Take on the label of respectful individuals who want to make our Montreal community a better place. This will take a lot of education to the public, and enabling opportunities for the little voices to be heard. I encourage my fellow students not to put up barriers to the public. They are incredibly hard to break down, regardless of the outcome of this discussion. Be respectful to each other, and respect the power of working together. Once this is all done and over with, maybe we can all come together again and have a huge awareness campaign for mental health awareness??? I cannot imagine what we could do if I was able to harness all of the energy from yesterday to pursue this cause. Good luck, and the worried mother in me says “be safe”.

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