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Editorial: The stigma of silence

  • Notes on a tree as part of a  project put on by a group called Active Minds to reduce the stigma around mental illness.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Notes on a tree as part of a project put on by a group called Active Minds to reduce the stigma around mental illness.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • left Elizabeth McKibben, Amanda Rodriguez adn Drew Morrison all members of A project put on by a group called Active Minds to reduce the stigma around mental illness.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    left Elizabeth McKibben, Amanda Rodriguez adn Drew Morrison all members of A project put on by a group called Active Minds to reduce the stigma around mental illness.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Notes on a tree as part of a  project put on by a group called Active Minds to reduce the stigma around mental illness.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • left Elizabeth McKibben, Amanda Rodriguez adn Drew Morrison all members of A project put on by a group called Active Minds to reduce the stigma around mental illness.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

As a group, college students are a passionate, lively bunch full of potential and curiosity. And yet they are vulnerable. Mental health problems, especially anxiety and depression at varying degrees of severity, are most common among people between 18 and 24. Nearly half of all college students report experiencing the kind of depression that impairs functioning. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students today.

These are alarming statistics. Yet in some ways they are not surprising.

Because of their combination of heady, newfound freedom, lifestyles that may include excessive use of alcohol or experimentation with drugs and documented impulsivity, college students are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems that, if untreated, can bring woeful distress to their lives.

It is precisely because of sobering facts like these that Active Minds seeks to dispel misunderstanding about mental health problems and reduce stigma for those suffering with them.

Active Minds was founded by Alison Malmon in 2001, one year after her 22-year-old brother Brian, a senior on leave from at Columbia University, killed himself. Malmon was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania at the time and grief over her only sibling’s suicide propelled her to take action.

Believing that her brother’s mental health problems were exacerbated by a sense of shame and stigma, Malmon formed Active Minds hoping to educate young people that mental health problems don’t need to ruin their lives. Today, with chapters at 350 college campuses in the United States, Canada and Australia, Active Minds works to teach students that there is treatment, hope and help.

Last week, the University of Massachusetts Amherst chapter of Active Minds, formed a year ago, joined about 150 chapters in observing the national Day Without Stigma. The Oct. 9 event sought to raise awareness about mental health problems among college students, increase understanding and educate people about how to get help.

Throughout the year, the UMass Active Minds chapter offers events on reducing stress, including yoga classes, movie nights and other activities designed to reduce isolation among students suffering from mental health challenges.

Students who are part of the chapter say one of the problems for students on a large campus like UMass is the potential to feel alone.

“It can be hard to connect with people on a campus of 25,000 people,” said one founding member.

The chapter, peer-led and organized by students, does not attempt to provide counseling or other services, instead referring those in need to the university’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Health.

For the Day Without Stigma, students invited passersby to jot down comments about their personal psychological struggles and thoughts about mental health and place them on a tree, dubbed the Stigma Free Tree, where others could read them.

Some of the notes remarked simply on the fact of mental health struggles, like this: “I struggled with anorexia as an early undergraduate.” Others clearly aimed to offer hope, like this: “Stigma creates silence and silence is what gets people in trouble. You don’t have to wait until it gets out of hand. You can get help, right here on campus, before that happens.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the life of a college student is not always easy. A little understanding of the kind encouraged by Active Minds can go a long way toward easing those difficulties.

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