Discussing the mental health stigma on campus

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March 21, 2013

11:08 PM

If you walk around campus on any given day and listen to the various conversations that different students are having, chances are that some of them will deal with some form of stress. Stress is no foreign concept to the students here at the College of William and Mary, and the College’s chapter of Active Minds sets out to remove the stigma against discussions of mental health on campus. The group puts on events that are intended to encourage conversations about mental health and how it affects us all.

“We don’t all have a mental illness, but we all have mental health,” President of Active Minds Ashlea Morgan ’13 said, quoting the organization’s national president.

Active Minds hosted an event Wednesday called “Debunking the Myths of Mental Health on Campus.” The program intended to provide a forum for an honest and open conversation about mental health and to clear up some of the common misconceptions that surround the topic at the College.

The event included students with personal connections to mental health issues, as well as Felicia Brown-Anderson from the College Counseling Center and Senior Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Health Promotion Donna Haygood-Jackson.

The moderators of the event, Morgan and Vice President Becca Kassablan ’13, read the panel various questions that highlighted myths or misconceptions about mental health in addition to more personal questions. The students on the panel discussed their own experiences with mental health and encouraged the audience to feel comfortable asking questions and voicing concerns surrounding mental health and how it is addressed on campus.

Several questions focused on how to deal with the backlash people may receive from friends and family after deciding to seek help for their mental health problems. The panel responded that students should seek support from the Counseling Center and the dean’s office when this type of backlash occurs because they can help students explain mental health issues to parents, family or friends. They added that gaining support from and talking to someone who understands what you may be going through can help encourage the notion that it is okay to seek help.

Other questions focused on College professors’ levels of awareness of students’ anxiety, stress and general mental health. The panel mentioned that there are workshops specifically aimed at teaching professors how to deal with and understand the stress their students may be under. The workshops are also aimed at teaching professors that it is advisable to reach out and ask if a student is doing okay and to offer them resources in case they need or want to seek help.

Additionally, students asked whether reaching out to the Counseling Center or dean’s office about thoughts of suicide automatically cause one to be assessed and “medically withdrawn” from school. The answer was no; everyone who walks into the Counseling Center for this reason does not get “kicked out.” The counselors recognize that suicidal behavior ranges from thoughts to plans to attempts. Each case is assessed individually, and since safety trumps all other considerations, a great deal of care is devoted to every student’s unique situation.

Jamar Jones ’13 said that he thinks that more students should be open to taking advantage of the resources that the College offers to students dealing with mental health issues.

“We have to do more to really connect with people,” Jones said. “I think people are aware of it, but it may not be touching them as much as it should.”

Mary Beth Case ’15, a member of HOPE, emphasized that there are a wide variety of mental health resources on campus for students at the College, including the Counseling Center’s website and phone services, meditation sessions and appointments with counselors themselves.

She added that she thinks the College’s climate can be conducive to stress, which can sometimes lead to even bigger problems.

“I think at William and Mary, we have a culture that embraces stress and anxiety,” Case said. “A member of HOPE coined the term ‘brag-plaining’ … There’s a weird sort of pride attached to having a lot to do and being stressed out.”

Kassablan ’13 said she hopes that the stigma surrounding mental health will continue to dissipate on campus.

“As more time passes, [my] perspective becomes richer,” Kassablan said.

Case said she hopes that mental health will become part of a larger discussion of campus issues.

“I think it needs to be taken out of the dark, [become] something that people feel comfortable talking about,” Case said. “Like if you would go to the Health Center to say you have a cold, you would go to the Counseling Center to say you’re struggling with depression. There shouldn’t be a shame with telling people that.”

Flat Hat Variety Editor Abby Boyle contributed to this article. 

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