These days, it is not breaking news that mental health is a prevalent issue among society. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), roughly one out of five adults in the United States experiences some form of mental illness in a given year. On top of that, one in four young adults have a diagnosable mental illness between the ages of 18 and 24, meaning mental illnesses are especially present on college campuses.
“Stigma has existed for too long in popular culture around mental health conditions,” Bob Carolla, senior writer for NAMI media relations, said in an email interview. “It involves disparaging language, slang and stereotypes. It attacks people’s self-esteem and discourages people from getting help if and when they need it.”
In an attempt to create awareness about the importance of mental health, to educate the public and to reduce the stigma behind mental illness, Mental Health America (MHA) and their affiliates have designated May as Mental Health Month for the past 65 years.
“It is an important issue,” Carolla said. “It is a period of life transition. Three quarters of lifetime cases of mental illness appear before age 24. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death in that age range.”
According to Danielle Fritze, MHA public education and visual communications director, this tradition was set in motion in 1949 after one of their members met with the United States Junior Chamber (Jaycees) to put plans in place for a week-long event. Since its inception, the cause has expanded to cover the entire month of May.
Over the course of the month, each group’s primary goal is to reach out to as many people as possible through the media, lectures, awareness screenings and other public events. “The most effective way to fight it is by speaking out, challenging stereotypes and sharing personal stories about experiences – by people standing up and giving support to others in their community,” Carolla said.
The theme for 2016’s Mental Health Month is “Life with a Mental Illness.” After discussion, MHA staff determined that this year’s campaign should focus on individuals’ day-to-day experiences of these illnesses rather than using clinical terms. “Clinical terms are the words used by doctors and other professionals to describe the symptoms of a disorder,” Fritze said. “Oftentimes those words don’t do justice to what life with a mental illness feels like.”
Open dialogue can help those suffering from a mental illness by discussing their experiences and connecting them with others. According to Fritze, two people can experience the same condition, yet perceive and describe it very differently. “Let’s take fear for example: one person might describe fear as being scared to the point of feeling paralyzed, while another might describe fear as an overwhelming urge to run away.”
To gain individuals’ perspectives, MHA is calling on people to share their experiences with mental illness through social media with the hashtag #mentalillnessfeelslike, or by sending in an anonymous submission to them. “People don’t need to feel ashamed or secretive about struggling with their mental health,” Fritze said. “The more we talk about it, the more normalized and accepted it becomes.”
Meighen Hopton, coordinator of student disability services and student support team case manager, has seen the New College community support those with mental health diagnoses in various ways. “Whether it be taking the time to speak with students in crisis, empathizing with how they are feeling, or providing referrals to Disability Services, Student Support, or the Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC),” Hopton said.
As the end of the year approaches, it is important that students take steps to care for both their mental and physical wellbeing, particularly during final exams week. “Many components of college life, for example high academic pressure, financial stress, lack of structure, decreased sleep, and increased substance use, can worsen mental health,” Kelly Davis, MHA policy and programs associate, said in an email interview.
Over the course of the fall 2015 semester alone, 44 percent of students sought help from the CWC over mental health concerns. “This is a large percentage, even for small colleges,” Doctor Eric Rosmith, CWC associate program director, said. “I think – at least, I hope – it speaks to less of a stigma for seeking help on this campus.”
According to Hopton, many students experience a significant increase in various symptoms during times of increased stress, such as midterms and finals. “My ultimate goal is to help students in any way I can. To make a positive impact on them and provide them with the tools they need to succeed,” Hopton said. “Our sense of community and caring for one another is strong at New College. Fortunately, because of that, many of the students with mental health issues are referred to the appropriate resources and get the help they need.”
Members of the CWC will be available in Hamilton “Ham” Center on Thursday, May 12, 2016 from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m., to provide general information to students regarding anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. They will be having a photo-shoot and sharing resources from the toolkit that MHA provides for Mental Health Month, which can also be found online.
On the same day, Students Targeting Oppressive Powers (STOP) will be holding a self-care event at from 7- 8 p.m. in the Gender and Diversity Center (GDC). Students who attend will be given the opportunity to participate in a conversation about self-care techniques, create art, and enjoy the food that is provided.
“While it can feel challenging to take care of yourself during midterms and finals, finding time to sleep, eat well, exercise, and take breaks are all important for your mental health and can improve performance and decrease burnout,” Davis said. “Think about the things that you find most enjoyable or rewarding and add them into your schedule wherever you can, whether it’s a quick walk around campus, a phone call with a friend, or listening to some of your favorite music. Schoolwork is important, but taking care of yourself is important, too.”
When thinking of helping others and facing personal challenges, Rosmith recommends that students keep this saying in mind: “You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.” For professional help finding coping mechanisms, students should take advantage of the many services that the CWC provides, which include counseling, student health, fitness, disability and health education.