Last fall on a Friday afternoon, I watched as hundreds of University of Texas students flooded out of the confines of campus, loaded onto buses and into cars, and began their 200-mile trek to Dallas for the Texas-OU football game. Commonly called the Red River Rivalry, the college football tradition marks an exciting weekend for many students--and often a stress release from fall midterms and class projects.
However, that Friday in October 2014 also marked a significant day around the globe: World Mental Health Day. An educational campaign, World Mental Health Day aims to promote and advocate mental health to the global community. The first Mental Health Day, which comes toward the end of a longer, Congressionally-approved Mental Illness Awareness Week, took place in 1992, the year I was born actually. Thus for my entire life, there has been an annual global celebration of mental health awareness and prevention.
Growing up, especially throughout my teenage years, I saw a shift toward open conversation about mental health. I have witnessed successful movements to chip away at the stigma of mental illness and, on a smaller scale, safe places or forums for individuals to discuss their experiences. But there is still so much more to be done.
I know this because I've faced the struggles of mental illness personally. When I was forced to confront my own affliction, I was unsure of how to access the resources available to me or navigate various counseling or treatment centers. I never felt comfortable enough to confide in a friend, or a family member, to share my "secret." The feelings of despair and helplessness crept in so deeply that I thought no one could truly understand my suffering. I held onto the misconception that people would judge me, no longer treat me with kindness or respect or, even worse, perceive me as weak.
I spent that Friday afternoon reflecting on my experiences in school living with a mental health condition. I thought, too, about what more can be done on college campuses, particularly my own campus, to support students with a mental health issue. These issues are vital now more than ever because colleges across the nation are reporting significant increases in mental health cases, exacerbated by factors such as elevated stress, rising pressure to succeed, and social media usage. I asked myself, are schools meeting the health needs of their students? And what improvements are needed to support students' academic experience?
UT's counseling and mental health center offers extensive resources, activities, and programs. Other universities have expanded mental health care. While these services are made available to the campus, students are still not accessing the support they need. Many are unaware of how to address mental health issues, whether their own or a friend's.
Stigma and misunderstanding remain barriers to students seeking help. This stigma paralyzed me from getting the help I so desperately needed. I chose to comply with the culture of silence that still surrounds mental health, despite the services and resources. That afternoon was a reminder that we are not devoting adequate time to exchanging dialogue on mental health treatment and prevention.
Colleges can play an important role in reducing mental health stigma. Peer support services, coordination between on-campus and off-campus providers, and targeted services for more susceptible communities are a few ways to improve care and better support students. Students, along with administrators, can advocate for increased visibility and publicity of mental health issues and resources. They can create a supportive, educated community beyond the mental health center and be willing to discuss the issues that pervade their campus.
Mental health doesn't affect just one portion of the population. Many of us have dealt with or know someone who has dealt with mental health issues in some capacity and on some point of the spectrum. I had been a successful student at UT, involved in student leadership and immersed in academic enrichment opportunities such as research and internships. Hiding my internal battles did not make me a better student or leader. It did not make me more successful but rather hindered me from maintaining my high level of achievement. I believe it takes greater strength to talk about these issues, particularly if you have a close, first-hand experience.
Nonetheless, it is extremely difficult for me to talk about mental health problems. At first I was filled with shame, but I realized that there is only honesty and courage involved in getting help for a mental health issue. I was fortunate to find the support from family and close friends. With the help of my university's health center and academic advising, I returned to a path where I could be successful inside and outside of the classroom. To those who are struggling, know that you are not alone in this battle, and it is important to prioritize your health. I encourage students to be sensitive and understand that mental health problems are in fact real, and often debilitating, problems.
We need to make a collective effort to become more supportive of and concerned about student mental health. Students can play a crucial role in prevention and outreach initiatives. Together, students can achieve a campus climate where each individual will engage thoughtfully as an active member and help their fellow students with problems they may face. I wish someone had done the same for me, and I wish I had been able to talk about mental health sooner.
We are a network of supporters. Putting the focus on mental health certainly does not begin when a health crisis occurs, and it does not end after World Mental Health Day. The conversations need to continue, and we can be there for each other. Every student deserves the opportunity to have a positive and fulfilling college experience. Let's break our culture of silence. Let's research; let's educate; let's talk.