The Candor

Stigmatized, Neglected, and Misunderstood: The Various Challenges of College Students with Mental Illnesses

Omair Ali

staff writer

A Sending Silence Packing® exhibition. Photo courtesy of Active Minds.

College is often understood to be a time where students can take advantage of a newly found life of independence, academic freedom, and all forms of pleasure. However, this image of college is very distorted in comparison to its actual image. College can be a great time for many students, but can be overwhelmingly troubling for others. Currently, mental illness is a significant problem for college students, and mental illness is also a subject that warrants contemplation and an honest discussion.

A mental illness or mental disorder is any serious condition characterized by a significant change in behavior, emotions, or thinking. A mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, nor should anyone facing a mental illness feel helpless. the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), America’s largest mental health organization, reports that over 40 million cases of mental illness occur every year, and 75% of chronic illnesses began by the age of 24. That’s a significant amount of people that battle mental illness at any given time, many of whom begin experiencing mental illness before reaching adulthood. So, we must be wary of the existence of mental illness, and how it may affect our friends, colleagues, and even loved ones.

A study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness between August and November of 2011 indicates that 64% of survey respondents dropped out of a higher education institution because of a “mental health related reason”. More than 45% of these surveyors felt that they “did not receive accommodations,” for their health. These statistics indicate that there are barriers to effective mental health care on college campuses, which include: limited on-campus support for those with a mental illness; lack of self-awareness about one’s well-being; and most importantly, the stigma associated with having a mental health problem.

Our culture has adopted a “hush-hush” policy in regards to mental health, believing that it’s better to not be open about personal issues. Our society has also been pushing academic-perfectionism, loyalty to individualism, and the philosophy of “fake it till you make it”—faking smiles and pretending that everything is okay– throughout this generation. As well, our society tends to isolate people with mental illnesses, which is certainly a recipe for disaster. Therefore, it’s no wonder that many students feel discouraged from seeking help, which also causes their conditions to worsen over time.

People also tend to make the mistake of assuming the well-being of others, thinking that one’s external expression is representative of one’s internal expression. But, it can be very difficult to discern one’s true emotions during a social interaction. That’s because many people hide their feelings as well as personal issues, which can include: bullying, substance abuse, abuse by family members or loved ones, school or job-related stress, or anything that can cause distress. Therefore, the best assumption to make is to assume that we don’t really know how someone else is feeling so that we don’t offend them or hurt their feelings.

So, is there anything we can do to make sure to reduce the stigma of mental illness on campus?

Absolutely.

The best way to support those who might have a mental illness is to detect the problem early on, which may require a vigilant eye. NAMI states that unusual risk-taking behaviors, chronic sadness, withdrawal from normal activities, having unusual concerns or fears, extreme mood swings, difficulty, and excessive use of drugs and alcohol are all signs of mental illness. So, if you notice someone that has these signs, it would be wise to direct them to professional care as early as possible.

Another way to fight the stigma against mental illness is raising awareness campus. Active Minds, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “empower students to change the perception about mental health on college campuses,” runs a program called Send Silence Packing®, which displays backpacks and personal stories of students that have committed suicide at campuses throughout the country. The purpose of the program is to send an emotional message to all students that suicide is a sad reality that takes the lives of 1100 wonderful students (according to Active Minds) each year; they also try to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health care. Inviting nonprofit, mental health organizations such as Active Minds to come to campus, or organizing an event independently would certainly improve the student body’s consciousness of mental health on campus.

Finally, being compassionate or friendly is a way to help affected individuals. Although it may seem obvious that being compassionate to others is a surefire way of preventing mental illness, people might not be very receptive compassion that is overwhelming or annoying. That’s why it’s important to use a more flexible version of compassion—compassion that isn’t suffocating, but can be used to make someone feel better or find out what problems they have. It is also important to treat people with mental illnesses like independent, human beings, not sob stories that are pitied upon. College is a crucial process for student to mature and become able to manage their own lives independently, no matter who the person is.

Thankfully, Benedictine University is a university that offers many services to its students. Whether you feel stressed about school, are troubled by peculiar circumstances in your life, or you just feel completely off, our university’s counseling center is able to offer support every day. Additionally, the campus ministry is also willing to accommodate any spiritual or emotional needs during difficult times. There are also many kind students that are willing to help others in need, so there is no shortage of help on our campus!

Remember that no one deserves to feel left behind if they have a mental illness, and it’s very okay to help those with mental illness through early detection, following the “Golden Rule, and raising awareness. Students facing a mental disorder must also understand that it is crucial to seek help, and that the stigma against mental health is the fault of society’s illogical pursuit of unrealistic and unhealthy ideals, not the affected individuals themselves.