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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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The mental health epidemic: A collegiate phenomenon

Picture this: you pass by someone in a hallway or on a sidewalk. You may know them vaguely, or not at all. You ask them how they're doing. Ninety percent of the time they respond by saying "fine," "pretty good" or something along that line. A pretty typical response, right?

Seriously though, there's absolutely no way 90% of people you meet are doing well. Yet, that's the go-to response. You could be having the worst day of your life. If someone walks by you and casually asks how you're doing, how do you think you'll respond? If I'm being honest, I'd probably say I'm "doing fine." 

Why? Because that's what everyone else says. Very few people will provide a truthful response. Very few people will tell you something other than "fine" or "okay." That needs to end because many college students are not “fine” or “okay.”

A study conducted by ActiveMinds concluded that nearly 40% of college students surveyed suffer from a mental illness, and this number could be higher depending on the sample. In a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, 44% of students surveyed experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Two out of five college students suffering from some form of mental illness or distress is concerning enough. However, the most alarming statistic from these studies isn't the 44%. It's that of the 44% who suffer from depression or anxiety, the vast majority are reluctant to seek help or be open about their struggles. The same study from ActiveMinds showed about two out of three college students of the nearly 40% suffering from a mental illness refuse or are reluctant to seek treatment. If they do tell anyone about their mental health struggles, most college students only tell a close friend.

This is a result of the environment and attitudes surrounding mental health.

Mental health research and acknowledgement have always been directly correlated with stigma. People with serious mental health struggles were quickly labeled as crazy, insane and dangerous to the public. Until the 1950s, individuals who suffered from mental health disorders were locked up in mental asylums, treated as insane and crazy, and lived in dangerous and frightening conditions.

Over the years, individuals such as Dorothea Dix, an activist nurse who changed the medical field during the 19th century, helped bring awareness to the horrifying conditions mental health patients experienced in these mental asylums. She was critical in passing laws addressing these conditions.

Despite this step forward, stigma surrounding mental health still exists. Even though this stigma doesn't appear to be as prominent now compared to the 1930s, that doesn't mean stigma no longer exists or that it doesn't impact individuals with mental disorders on a daily basis.

According to a study from the Mental Health Foundation, roughly 90% of those surveyed experiencing a mental illness said they are negatively impacted by the stigma and discrimination associated with having a mental disorder. The stigma resulted in increased low self-worth and depression-related symptoms. 

Stigma doesn't just impact the symptoms the individual may experience. It also affects the likelihood that the individual is willing to be open and honest about their mental health struggles. If someone called you crazy or insane for experiencing mental distress or mental struggles, would you want to be open about having a mental disorder? No, probably not. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), only 34% of college students diagnosed with a mental disorder sought treatment in the past year, and the main reason cited for such a low percentage was the stigma and general attitude towards mental health. 

What's most frustrating is that the stigma doesn't have to exist. We as a campus and as a greater community must work together to reduce this stigma through conversations about mental health.

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Sure, there is some conversation around mental health, from commercials to public service announcements. However, when I say conversation, I mean in your day-to-day life —  with friends, family and even acquaintances. We need to create a community that is open to mental health conversations without fear. 

You don't have to ask someone about every single detail of their struggles — some aspects of mental health can be too personal. 

However, the next time you sit down in a lecture hall, look at the person on your left and the person on your right. Statistically, one of those two people is experiencing some sort of mental health struggle. Don't be afraid to get to know them better. Don't be scared to ask them how they're doing. Don't be afraid to tell that person they're in an open and comfortable environment in case they need to get something off their chest or simply be open about their mental health experiences and struggles.

Wade Vellky is a freshman staff writer studying Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Do you believe that the stigma surrounding mental health needs to change? Send all comments to

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