When I came to Queen’s, I thought I could do anything. I strived for high marks. I got involved in student politics and, when a friend suggested I run for Rector, I went for it. I didn’t win (that time) but, before too long, I was off in another direction, helping organize a student conference in Toronto. Between that, my studies, and my job in Kingston, I was travelling constantly and pulling all-nighter after all-nighter, right through the Christmas break of my second year. But, still, the world was my oyster.
Then, the day before school started again in January, I had a horrible panic attack – although I didn’t know what it was at the time. And I kept having them – up to six debilitating attacks a day.
The doctor I saw told me I had to cut back – “focus on your academics,” she said. I took her advice. It wasn’t easy, but slowly I began getting better. That’s when I started to notice something in the people around me. Sometimes it was what they said, sometimes it was more an attitude – that I was self-dramatizing or I could shake off my problem if I really wanted to. Maybe the fact I had been so badly hit by anxiety painted me as weak in their eyes.
In many ways, their comments and attitude were worse than the anxiety and made recovery that much harder.
This was why I wanted to speak out in February this year when the University announced the generous $1,000,000 gift that will fund the Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair. Bell’s gift will help the chair’s first holder, Professor Heather Stuart of the Faculty of Health Sciences, to learn more about the root causes of the stigma, how it affects both those with an illness and those around them and, most important of all, how to help those with mental illnesses overcome it. I felt that by standing up there as University Rector and telling my story, I was doing my part to fight this stigma. And I was surprised and really touched by how many people afterwards wanted to share their own similar experiences or those of a family member with me.
This initiative isn’t the only way in which Queen’s is helping to deal with mental illness (although in my opinion, there is still a lot more we can do). Last fall, for example, students started a grassroots movement called “Queen’s Wears Green” dedicated to fighting the stigma around mental health issues on campus. The money raised from the sale of distinctive green shirts went to support mental health initiatives in Canada.
To me, the work being done on mental health represents the essence of Queen’s. Our teachers, our researchers and our students are excellent at what they do – whether it is researching and protecting river sheds, studying the changing field of labour law in the 21st century, or helping those hit with mental illness find understanding and acceptance. It’s that spirit of initiative that is so much a part of Queen’s, that desire to do something to make a better world.
Studying in an environment where we see change being made, and where we have the opportunity and support to do so ourselves, is inspiring. As alumni, your gifts are critical to ensuring that Queen’s students continue to experience a top-quality education, and that our cutting edge research continues to make a difference.
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When excellence meets opportunity, there is no telling what can happen.
Nick Francis, Artsci'14
Rector of Queen's University