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March 7, 2014

Mental illness matters

Campus and country should pay more attention to mental illness.

This past January, Bell Canada hosted its fourth annual Bell Let’s Talk Day, a day dedicated to informing the public about mental illness and, in doing so, raising money for its treatment. Thanks to a total of 109,451,719 tweets, texts, Facebook shares, and calls (for each of which Bell Canada donated five cents), the event managed to raise nearly $5.5 million to help fund much-needed mental health initiatives and public awareness campaigns.

Incredible, right? It’s just too bad that Canada isn’t the only country with mental illness. Despite having approximately the same incidence of mental illness—between one in four and one in five, or about 63 million people—four years of Bell Let’s Talk Days later, the U.S. still fails to have anything even remotely close.

But we too need to start talking (a lot more) about mental health and illness. By not talking about it, we cultivate an environment of shame and stigma in which it’s little wonder why, when one in five are ill, barely one in 100 seek help—and that’s absolutely not okay.

Back when it actually did things, Congress designated the first full week of October as Mental Health Awareness Week. Twenty-four years later, barely anyone knows about its existence. Though National Eating Disorders Awareness Week gained a lot more traction through social media last week, it still failed to reach a sufficiently wide audience to truly promote dialogue and “awareness.” This isn’t to say that dedicated national weeks can’t do a lot for a cause. But if we’re serious about promoting mental health awareness, we need to dedicate the same amount of time, energy, and resources to making these weeks a success.

Despite the significant improvements made to mental health care access through the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), organizations dedicated to promoting ACA awareness have similarly failed in this crucial respect, at best relegating the topic of mental illness to a side note, a third-paragraph example, or a once-every-five-months-or-so tweet. Half of the articles you’ll find by simply searching such groups’ sites for “mental+health” or “mental+illness” aren’t even about these topics, but about SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. If we’re serious about informing the public about changes to their health care benefits, we need to inform people about all their benefits—not just the physical ones.

Though the popular press has itself made important strides in reporting about and discussing mental health and illness, it too needs to raise the bar. If we’re serious about discussing mental health and illness in a constructive and meaningful way, we need to start replacing broad, removed language like “the mentally ill” with specific, people-first terms, like “people with schizophrenia.” Beyond creating a sense of “separateness and otherness,” as President-Elect of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Dr. Paul Summergrad recently pointed out, the former terminology promotes the myth that mental illness is “a unimodal type of thing.” Needless to say, it’s not; the APA’s highly incomplete diagnostic manual alone is 991 pages long. It’s also worth noting that we’d find the construction “the mentally ill” completely unacceptable if used to reference virtually any other group of people. Try it: “Equal pay for the women.” “How the blacks use Twitter.” “Deal could allow the gays in Boston parade.”

But the most important, immediate, and impactful changes don’t have to happen at the national level, and we don’t have to wait for them to happen in the popular press. They can and should happen right here, right now, on campus.

There are many things each of us can do. For one, we can—and should—stop discussing mental illness as if it were a choice, or worse, a joke.

Though our generation has at last embarked upon a much-needed disavowal of slurs like the r-word from our daily dialogue, our pervasive misuse of mental illness terms like “OCD” and “bipolar” is no better, and also needs to go. “Bipolar” is not a synonym for indecisive; “OCD” is far more than a preference for hygiene and order. By joking in this way, we marginalize and understate the grave weight and danger of these disorders.

Then there are things we can do as a student body.

The recent UChicago Health of the Mind student initiative, for instance, is doing incredible, invaluable work generating dialogue and fostering a culture of peer support on campus. The fact that some of its Facebook posts have been getting upwards of 200 likes says a lot about students’ desire for this kind of dialogue and openness. It’s a great, albeit limited, first step.

Projects like UChicago Clothesline, which connects campus artists with sexual assault survivors to give the latter a voice and raise awareness about sexual assault, are also incredibly important, as is the (unclear if still active) Student Health Horror Stories Tumblr, which offers students a public outlet to anonymously share their experiences and grievances with campus physical and mental health services.

The students behind all of these projects deserve a lot of praise for their brave hard work advocating for mental health and associated issues. I hope (but, at least for now, unfortunately doubt) that our administration is paying attention to the amazing student initiatives described above, and is doing everything it can to support them. More initiatives like this are also needed. For instance, one of the students I spoke to in the course of researching for this piece suggested launching a for-students, by-students support group in the style of those run by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Though NAMI currently operates over 180 chapters on college campuses across the country, there’s only one in Illinois at UIC.

But true, positive, lasting change requires a fundamental and integrated change in our campus culture—a change that calls on students, organizations, and administrators to work together to foster a more open and supportive environment in which students feel comfortable opening up about their concerns and problems without being mocked, ostracized, or manipulated.

Based on my discussions with students and my own, admittedly biased campus perception, it seems that the weakest link in this relationship is currently our administration. Though most of the students I’ve spoken to have praised the launch of Health Promotion and Wellness and cautioned against making Student Counseling Services (SCS) a scapegoat for broader campus problems, all agreed that many—too many—problems remain.

For all our rah-rah about Healthy Minds surveys, we still do an inadequate job of supporting students who seek help elsewhere, or of encouraging students to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Reports of students being told to abruptly abandon counseling or being ignored in their attempts to return to school—experiences both reported in the Maroon, and versions of which have been echoed in my own discussions with students—are absolutely unacceptable.

It’s time we recognize that high-stress environments like our campus aren’t immune from mental illness, but breeding grounds for it.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a third-year in the College majoring in economics and public policy. Follow her @golovashkina.

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