Mental-health priorities: increasing awareness, decreasing stigma
A full week of activities is on tap to boost awareness of mental-health issues on campus, among sufferers and the sympathetic alike
| 10 October 2007
You can't open a newspaper these days without reading about another college or university forming a task force to assess mental-health issues on their campus. The primary legacy of Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui, apart from the grief he brought to the friends and survivors of his 32 victims, may well prove to be a heightened awareness of both the incidence of emotional disturbance among college students and the potentially disastrous effects of ignoring it.
Mental Health Awareness Week activities
Tuesday, Oct. 16
Wednesday, Oct. 17
Thursday, Oct. 18
Friday, Oct. 19
Yet the acting out of murderous impulses by the emotionally ill student - whether upon himself or other victims - is only the most extreme result of unmanaged mental illness. For every collegiate mass murderer, there are innumerable students suffering from mental illness, chronic or otherwise, who experience their pain in private, who generate no APBs, cause no campus lockdowns, and never see their mugshot on the national news. An estimated 1,100 of them, though, express their anguish in the most palpable and irreversible terms . . . by committing suicide.
What began here a few years ago as an effort to get students to take advantage of mental-health screening services on campus has broadened to the point that a full week of activities promoting mental-health awareness for the entire campus community is now sustainable. Monday, Oct. 15, through Friday, Oct. 19, is the first Mental Health Awareness Week at Berkeley, co-sponsored by University Health Services (UHS), the ASUC, Student-to-Student Peer Counseling, and the Alameda County Psychological Association.
"Virginia Tech was on our minds while we were planning the week's activities," says Susan Bell, a staff psychologist at UHS, "but it was not the impetus for the program. Interest in addressing these issues was already high on campus prior to the shooting." What the Virginia Tech tragedy did do, she says, is heighten sensitivity to these issues and raise interest in services available for distressed students. "We received a lot more calls from people on campus concerned about other people they know or work with," she says; by Bell's estimate, utilization of mental-health services on campus was up about 11 percent this fall over last year.
The central events of this week's activities will be familiar to participants in past years' Depression Screening Days: a three-hour "mental-health check-in" period in the MLK Student Union's Pauley Ballroom, taking place at the same time as an Address Your Stress program featuring free massages, "do-it-yourself art," and relaxation tips (in Upper Sproul Plaza and on the third floor of the student union).
The "check in" consists of an interactive survey designed to assess an individual's current propensity for mental-health concerns. It's free and totally anonymous: After completing the check-in survey, a participant consults with a volunteer counselor (either a UHS staff member or a psychologist from outside), who reviews the results and discusses stressors and other mental-health concerns they might have. Perhaps their results look consistent with those of people known to be suffering from depression, or they may suggest an issue with anxiety. Depending on how high the scores are, the counselor may suggest - or, perhaps, strongly recommend - that the person get some help.
Last year, says Bell, the scores of fully one-third of the screened participants - faculty and staff as well as students - indicated a likelihood of clinical depression. In those instances, she says about next week's screenings, "We would refer them to Counseling and Psychological Services for a full evaluation, which might be a full appointment with a counselor or a drop-in session later that day. If someone's results show that they're endorsing items around suicidal thoughts, we'll be more active in getting them help than we would be if their results suggest only mild depression."
Among the challenges that make the experience of depression, and the resolve to do something about it, more difficult for some students than others, says Bell, are the barriers to seeking help that are erected and sustained by the stigma of mental illness. That stigma is sometimes made even more restrictive by attitudes toward the topic common in various ethnic subcultures, members of which may pointedly avoid or defer treatment for depression and other emotional ailments - out of a sense of privacy, perhaps, or a feeling that their emotional issues don't rise to the level of severity that would justify such treatment. Such individuals may also, even if treatment is sought, fail to stick with it long enough to realize some improvement.
Which is not to say that the supposed stigma of mental illness is perceived only by certain groups in society. As Professor of Psychology Stephen Hinshaw has previously noted, "concealment remains a major means of coping" with emotional issues for people from all walks of life. In his recent book The Mark of Shame: Stigma of Mental Illness and an Agenda for Change, Hinshaw showed how the mentally ill "lose out on major life opportunities" due to the difficulties they experience finding work, navigating bureaucracies, and dealing with discrimination of all kinds.
It's these kinds of negative outcomes that concern the organizers of Mental Health Week just as much as the real but rare dangers the mentally ill may pose to others. "The goal," emphasizes UHS's Bell, "is to help people be successful in school and in their lives." That's why a number of the week's activities focus on stress reduction and management just as much as on identification and assessment of mental-health issues. [See sidebar this page for the full schedule of events.]
"We tried to schedule this event for a time in the semester where people may find themselves struggling [with these issues], and where it's not too late," Bell adds. "Too early, and they may not yet have reached a point of self-awareness about the pressures they're under; too late, and it's getting close to finals. Building awareness - of these issues, and the resources available to people here to help them deal with those issues - is our main goal for the week."