College students have a lot to worry about, from living in a new environment to stressful school work, but one crucial element of their lives is often left unattended — their mental health.
Mental health is a nuanced, deeply personal and often avoided subject, but the resolve of UW-Madison students and faculty is strong as they fight to eliminate stigma and raise awareness.
One of the students speaking up about mental health is Ben Wright, a graduate student in the math department who has struggled with mental illness during his own college career.
In the spring semester of this past school year, Wright witnessed two different instructors making comments about suicide that he felt were insensitive. He then requested that the math department be more conscious of mental health.
For months after contacting administration, Wright felt that significant change was not being made. Recently, though, he became more optimistic about steps being taken.
A department-wide message was sent out asserting the importance of supporting students’ mental health and sharing resources available on campus, according to Kathie Brohaugh, the Graduate Program Coordinator for the math department. Mental health awareness training is set to occur at a departmental meeting in the fall.
The math department also appointed associate professor Autumn Kent as mental health liaison, a new position that will serve as a line of communication between students and department administrators.
Despite positive change, the comments further affirmed Wright’s view that there is not yet enough awareness on campus.
Mental illness, in its many forms, is widespread, especially for college-aged people. One in five adults in the past year experienced mental illness, and the rates are highest in the 18-24 age group, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“It’s a time of significant transition, being away from traditional support systems, and a time of constant stress,” University Health Services Communications Director Marlena Holden said. “From a biological point of view, this is also when many new mental illnesses present themselves.”
Although a UHS study found 94 percent of students do not think less of a peer who seeks mental health assistance, 40 percent of students feel that they would experience stigma upon seeking health care.
“Fighting stigma is an ongoing battle not only in the department and on campus, but in society as a whole,” Brohaugh said. “The more we talk about mental illness, the more ‘acceptable’ it will be to ask for help.”
Mental health affects not only students, but faculty and administrators as well. Brohaugh struggles with mental illness and hopes that by speaking up she can help others do the same.
“I personally live with anxiety and depression,” she said. “I wouldn't have the deep sensitivity and concern for others without them. My personal experiences being treated as the mental ill sufferer has fueled my passion for promoting mental illness awareness.”
Being able to ask for help is sometimes vital, explained a graduate student and teaching assistant who suffers from acute mental illness and wished to remain anonymous.
“I have lost four people to suicide, so I would much rather make the mistake of overreacting than underreacting,” she said. “We really need to educate ourselves with the facts even though it hurts. At my age, I’m more likely to die from suicide than cancer.”
Families and students can educate themselves about mental health and where to find helpful resources in a number of ways, including an informational session held at SOAR. The UHS website has a page devoted to how families and friends can help if they think a loved one may be suffering from mental illness as well as a similar program called At Risk.
One of the most important things we can do is listen, according to the anonymous student, a belief echoed by others.
“More than anything, I want to talk about mental health and listen to other people’s stories,” Wright said.