SFU’s culture of confessions obscures mental health issues

[dropcap]“[/dropcap][dropcap]N[/dropcap]ot sure what to do at this point, I’m very depressed.”

“For some reason, I feel much more comfortable knowing people don’t know how much I really suffer. They must think I’m some happy idiot when all I really want is to die.”

These are posts on SFU Confessions, a Facebook page that lets students submit anonymous confessions which range from humorous asides about transit etiquette violations to troubling stories of suicide attempts, depression, and anxiety.

At the time of publication, the page has 16,631 likes. For comparison, SFU has 26,494 students. Confessions pages have sprung up at university campuses across Canada and the USA. The appeal of such pages is clear: they appease our voyeuristic tendencies by offering an intimate glimpse into someone else’s life.

However, these pages also serve a much more worrisome purpose. When outlets like SFU Confessions become the default place for students to unload their feelings, meaningful dialogues about mental health are undermined.

There are two characteristics of these outlets that render them incapable of helping students deal with mental health issues. The first characteristic is anonymity. My generation in particular is quite attached to anonymity, assuming that when people can say what they want, they will say what they feel. However, when dealing with mental health, anonymity is problematic.

If individuals are encouraged to only share their struggles when they can fear no social repercussions, then instead of challenging the belief that talking about mental health is shameful or embarrassing, it perpetuates that stigma. Instead of being able to put a face to mental health issues, there remains a shroud of secrecy.

Expressing your feelings in an honest way is a crucial first step, but progress is difficult when subsequent communication is a one-way road. On most university confessions pages each post is often commented on by multiple individuals expressing banal statements of support or unspecific advice. That is the extent of the dialogue that can take place. Do commenters online know you personally? Can they offer a friendly ear to listen to your problems, or even a warm hug?

Opening up to someone and being vulnerable is daunting, but that’s what makes it meaningful.

I don’t mean to be cynical but I doubt all those who comment of confessions pages are altruistic; whenever social media is involved, even things that seem positive can become performative and stink of self-righteousness.

In no way do I oppose SFU Confessions or discourage individuals from sending messages to the page.  Rather, I think that its popularity should raise concerns among the student population about how we are coming to terms with mental health issues.

Instead, I encourage SFU students to seek out support from those around you, whether it be from friends, mentors, family, or mental health resources on campus. Have a face-to-face discussion with someone and be honest and genuine. The who isn’t important; it’s the how that matters.

Telling people how you feel is terrifying, and that’s the way it should be. Opening up to someone and being vulnerable is daunting but that’s what makes it meaningful. Reaching out to support systems or trying to create them is a positive step in coming to terms with how you’re feeling. Most importantly, it relies on genuine relationship-building and honest connections being formed.

Mental health is a pressing concern on our campus, and on campuses across the continent. A study from Psychology Today on US college students found that “50 per cent of students rated their mental health below average or poor” and “one in three students had reported prolonged periods of depression.” If the student population wants to change those numbers, we need more than a social media page that pays lip service to mental health issues without any real engagement. We need to work on the mental health resources available.

But the real change comes with a personal commitment to seek fulfillment — not in the digital space, but in real life. All it takes is a simple, “Hey, can I talk to you about something?”