Mental illness, as seen within the context of psychology and medicine, views any mental abnormality as mental illness. However, “how we understand the perceived mentally ill is always shifting,” says Janet Phillips, PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science. Phillips researches how ‘madness’ is governed in Canada, and how shifts in the way we understand mental illness translate into particular policy interventions, starting from Confederation to the present day.
Phillips’ dissertation is titled From Confinement to Resilience: A Genealogy of the Governance of Mental Illness in Canada. “When we look at mental illness from a political perspective, it’s always looking at policy. I’m looking at the broader discourse and movements within.”
The words used to describe mental illness have evolved, moving from the exclusionary (and untreatable) to something far less stigmatizing, but while our descriptions may be more nuanced, they are still problematic. “There is a lot of talk about mental illness and, in particular, mental health in the media,” says Phillips. She attributes this, in part, to the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). Since its inception in 2007, the MHCC has worked to increase dialogue around the issues of mental illness in Canada, producing the country’s first mental health strategy, Changing Directions, Changing Lives.
“On the one hand, it’s great that there is less institutionalization, but in looking further into this document and other provincial documents, the rhetoric is troubling. The priority is recovery, which is not a cure of symptoms but living a ‘meaningful and productive life’ in spite of them,” explains Phillips.
“And there’s another shift to prevention and resiliency, where we’re teaching kids mental health literacy skills. So instead of succumbing to mental illness, they’re taught to bounce back in the face of it.”
“All of that sounds good,” says Phillips, “but where is the collective responsibility, and what do we do with the people who simply can’t ‘bounce back’?” According to her, shifting the burden of mental illness on the shoulders of individuals, families, and other traditional social supports such as workplaces and community organizations — which reduces the financial pressure on public-funded services — is commensurate with the neo-liberal philosophy of privatization.
The danger, she says, is that in ‘individualizing’ mental illness, no one is looking at the structural or social problems that might be causing it. “We need a properly funded mental health system,” she says. “We need to put the focus on those who are most excluded. While it’s important to talk about the mental health of everyone, we need to make sure we’re not forgetting about the mental health of the few.”
Phillips’ research is both a passion and a direction. “When I was an undergrad, I wanted to work in mental health, so I started all these science courses and it didn’t work out. I’m so glad I was able to come back to it in a much different way.”
She is especially keen to share her passion with her students. “It’s the reason why I wanted to do a PhD,” says Phillips, who won a Graduate Teaching Award from the Faculty of Arts last year. “I love teaching, and people have been really responsive in my department and the faculty towards my research. It’s the best environment I could ever hope to work in.”