How College Students Are Resisting The Mental-Illness Stigma

They tell us from the time we’re young
To hide the things that we don’t like about ourselves
Inside ourselves
I know I’m not the only one who spent so long attempting to be someone else

—“Secrets” by singer/songwriter Mary Lambert, who has bipolar disorder

Kelly Davis arrived at college carrying heavy baggage—bipolar disorder and an eating disorder. Dragged down by severe depression, she barely made it through her first two years at American University in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t go to classes a lot. I didn’t get out of bed,” recalls Davis, now 22. “After freshman year, I got into an abusive relationship. I was drinking heavily, frequently.” When she felt hopeless, she would tell herself that she would one day be better and try to prevent what happened to her from happening to others.

That she has.

Davis went on to serve as president of her university’s chapter of Active Minds, a national mental health advocacy organization. Davis also organized mental health events and programs for her campus’ wellness center.

Davis is among the hundreds of college students who no longer care to hide their mental illness—or be judged by it. Student advocates are passionate about decreasing stigma and expanding campus mental health services. They are pushing college administrators to create more equitable mental health leave policies and are demanding clearer rules for readmission.

These advocates are driven by the fact that about 20 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds’ deaths each year are suicides. They are emboldened by celebrity mental health disclosures and the LGBT movement’s civil rights successes. They have the confidence to come out, organize, and advocate for themselves in large numbers.

These students are emboldened by their sheer numbers. In the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers, 86 percent of center directors at 274 institutions reported a steady increase in students arriving on campus already on psychiatric medication. UCLA’s 2015 American Freshman Survey polled more than 150,000 incoming freshmen at 227 four-year American colleges and universities. Of those, 10 percent reported feeling “frequently” depressed, more than 3 percentage points higher than five years ago.

Several college mental health psychologists say the fact that more teens with mental illness are attending college is partly due to advances in mental health care. “We have students who 20 years ago wouldn’t have been in higher ed,” says Chris Brownson, director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “Now, due to earlier treatment, better treatment, many are functioning better and can be wildly successful.”

The increased demand for mental health care has, however, overtaxed many college health centers, resulting in waits as long as three weeks for initial appointments. This discourages some students from seeking help, says Davis. She and other student advocates want colleges and universities to increase counseling staff and add more options, like peer-to-peer counseling.

Young advocates will tell you that stigma is still prevalent and that disclosure takes courage. But talking about mental illness is the best way to reduce prejudice and ignorance, says Ameera Ladak, a senior at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She finds a huge disconnect between the overall student body and those with a mental illness.

“Most students don’t even know the anti-stigma effort exists,” she says. “At campus mental wellness events, people rarely approach [our] booth. They don’t want to be seen as crazy. That’s the main challenge facing us right now.”

Davis spoke out about her eating and mood disorders to help others and found that in doing so, she freed herself. “As I started opening up about my struggles, I realized there were other people with similar experiences, waiting for someone else to bring it up” she says. “The quality of my relationships was transformed, even with acquaintances, because I no longer felt I had something to hide or to be ashamed of.”

Revealing your most private, painful moments can be scary but liberating. Sixteen years old and newly diagnosed, Sarah Berendt isolated herself, but as college approached, the teen threw off her shame and self-loathing. “I realized it wasn’t fair that I had labeled myself as crazy. I knew I had potential to do something worthwhile, which allowed me to feel more comfortable telling friends.”

She confided to her freshman roommate at Lourdes University in Sylvania, Ohio. “It was the most awkward conversation I’ve ever had,” Berendt recalls. “I told her that I was on medication for a condition called bipolar disorder. She was not entirely comfortable living with someone with bipolar, but over time, she got a lot more comfortable.” Four years later, the once withdrawn Berendt leads a support group at the local National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), a grassroots mental illness advocacy organization, and is president of her university’s Active Minds chapter. She was instrumental in relocating the campus mental health center to a less conspicuous location to encourage more students to seek treatment. A 2012 NAMI study found that 50 percent of surveyed students who dropped out of college for mental health reasons had never sought counseling.

Students say they are drawn to organizations like these out of a hunger for community and a desire to help their peers find mental health care. The students get to write chapter bylaws, fundraise, and hold events—like De-stress festivals and Defeat Depression runs. At Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Madison, New Jersey, campus, students paraded a banner with 1,000 handprints that read: “1,000 Students Die From Suicide Each Year.” Student mental health groups also invite to campus guest speakers with mental illness who lead successful lives and run movies that treat mental illness responsibly.

A new Active Minds program, Transform Your Campus, gives students tools to shape policy. For instance, students at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, created a mental health curriculum for freshmen and collaborated with college administrators to print a 24-hour crisis number on all student ID cards.

Recent college graduate Kelly Davis is using all she learned as a student mental health advocate in her new job as a policy and programming associate at Mental Health America, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing mental wellness. She is confident the college student mental health movement will continue to expand both in numbers and influence.

“What it’s really about is looking at mental health as part of the larger campus culture,” Davis says. “We’re investing so much in universities, they need to invest in us as well.”

Donna Jackel wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Donna is a professional journalist who these days focuses largely on disability rights, social justice and animal welfare. Her work has been published in national publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chicago Tribune, Next Avenue and The Bark.

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