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Fighting stigma through awareness of mental health

Like physical health, mental health is something everyone is likely to struggle with sometime in their life. Yet due to stigmas and negative connotations associated with mental health issues, discussions surrounding the topic are sparse.

“Mental health is an everyday thing that everyone deals with,” said Luke Meyers ’17, co-chair of the student organization Macalester Voices on Mental Health. “We should be able to talk about it candidly, but a lot of people don’t like to discuss it because they feel uncomfortable or they see it as a private matter … That is stigma.” He described how easy it is to talk to people about struggles with a cold or a fever compared to depression or anxiety.

Beryl Wingate, a counselor and care coordinator at the Health and Wellness Center, described stigma as “something that asks us to believe that there’s something inherently wrong or unacceptable about ourselves,” which she said, “could not be further from the truth.” Wingate considers stigma a social justice issue because it chips away at the inclusive community that Macalester strives to uphold.

Meyers’ co-chair, Jessie Miller ’16, added that a sense of shame comes with this stigma surrounding mental health. “I used to have PTSD and depression,” she said. “The biggest reason why I didn’t tell people is because I was ashamed to have those things. But they’re not shameful at all and they’re something so many people go through.”

According to the two co-chairs, the pressure of Macalester academic, extracurricular and social life often provoke or intensify students’ mental health issues. Meyers categorized Macalester as having a culture of expectation and one-upmanship in which students feel guilty when they have free time, which leads to great amounts of stress. Miller explained that she never felt academic anxiety before transferring to Macalester from the University of Minnesota.

Ted Rueff, Associate Director of the counseling services at the Health and Wellness Center, agreed that stress and other aspects of Macalester’s culture increase students’ mental health concerns more so than at other colleges and universities. “This is an extremely academically rigorous environment where stress is in fact part and parcel to the whole thing,” he said. “Highly aspirational group of people, lots of opportunity that can [be] overwhelming at times if people overcommit, being away from home support networks, family, friends, even healthcare professionals, all contribute to stress, which in turn has strong ties to exacerbation of mental health concerns.”

Although Macalester is an environment that tends to induce stress, which can in turn inflame mental health issues, the presence of stress itself may be alleviating mental health stigmas throughout campus.

Zoe Nardone ’16, publicity chair of Voices on Mental Health, is one community member who has noticed an increase in openness. “I’ve definitely seen a change in mental health stigma on this campus in the past two years, just in people’s willingness to talk about it,” she said.

Rueff has also noted a decrease in stigma at Macalester, which he attributes to more students discussing their mental health concerns. He explained that for around a decade, both demand for counseling services and the severity of concerns amongst college students have increased. Last year, 16 percent of students received individual counseling, and one-third of students do so throughout their time at Macalester, according to Rueff. “These are our friends, our lovers, our family members,” he said. “As people are willing to disclose around that aspect of their personal identity or struggle, then that has an effect of weakening stigma across the culture.”

The Health and Wellness Center and Voices on Mental Health, along with MCSG and other Macalester communities, continue to work on decreasing stigma and increasing assistance for students dealing with mental health issues. For example, Wingate began her new role as Care Coordinator last semester to help students find off-campus counseling services.

Voices on Mental Health is dedicated to improving conversations around mental health on campus by holding weekly meetings and hosting campus-wide events. They held their annual Voices event Thursday, Nov. 5, in which students shared their personal experiences surrounding mental health. Regarding last year’s event at which she spoke to an audience of nearly 80 community members, Miller said, “Everyone cries. We literally have it in the budget for tissue boxes that get passed around. It’s super personal but it’s so affirming.”

The organization will hold a community forum with MCSG’s Student Services and Relations Committee Tuesday, Nov. 10 on various mental health policies they would like to see instituted, such as required disability accommodation statements on all syllabi, improved access to resources on and off campus and mental health trainings during orientation and throughout students’ time at Macalester. The event will be held from 4:45 to 6:15 p.m. in Weyerhaeuser Chapel.

November 6, 2015

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