U groups address mental health stigma

Students have mixed views on whether mental health should be discussed publicly.

University student Alec Fischer discusses ways to support someone who might be going through a mental health crisis at a discussion panel at Coffman Union on Wednesday.

Lisa Persson

University student Alec Fischer discusses ways to support someone who might be going through a mental health crisis at a discussion panel at Coffman Union on Wednesday.

Tyler Gieseke

When she was a child, Solome Tibebu had trouble talking with her parents about her obsessive-compulsive disorder because she didn’t want them to worry.

But she opened up to a counselor, and she has worked to help people with mental health conditions ever since.

In a period of high demand for mental health resources on campus, University of Minnesota student groups are working to place the issue in a more positive light.

Tibebu, a local entrepreneur, spoke on a panel at Coffman Union that student groups Active Minds and University Suicide Awareness and Prevention hosted Wednesday night to discuss how to minimize the stigma that surrounds mental health and maintain good mental health.

“If we don’t do events like this, … the stigma’s not only not going to go away, but it’s going to get worse,” sociology sophomore and USAP President Sydny Spires said.

The goal was to find panelists who had substantial experience with mental health, said psychology senior and Active Minds President Audrey Blankenheim. 

The aversion to discussing mental health topics isn’t necessary, she said, and can lead to silence among those with mental health problems.

She said it’s important for students to realize that everyone goes through tough times with mental health, and persevering through those times can teach people about themselves.

Nearly 30 percent of University of Minnesota-Twin Cities students reported being diagnosed with a mental health condition during their lifetime, according to the 2013 Boynton Health Service College Student Health Survey.

It’s tough to address mental health issues and illnesses if people won’t talk about them or have negative thoughts about them, panelists said.

“There’s just a lot of fear around it,” Rohovit said.

One possible reason for that fear, panelists said, is that media portrayals of mental illness usually focus on people who have committed acts of violence. This gives a lopsided view of the issue, they said.

Mental health and physical health shouldn’t be thought of as two different things, University addiction studies expert Julie Rohovit said — both are important and deserve attention.

“The last time I checked, our heads are connected to our bodies,” she said.

Panelists said some ways to improve mental and physical health include exercise and adequate sleep.

Spires said the groups were hoping to attract a few hundred students to the event, but about 50 attended.

Attendees had mixed views on whether mental health should be discussed publicly.

Communication studies junior Morgan McAfee, a member of Active Minds, said she enjoyed the event.

“I thought it was really useful,” she said. “I kind of wish more people had shown up.”

Electrical engineering senior Ming Dai said mental health is important but more of a private matter.

In order to help someone who has a mental illness or concern, it’s best to be an active listener rather than give advice, said panelist Jerie Smith, a volunteer coordinator for the Aurora Center.

She said it’s important to believe someone when they disclose something.

“What I want to hear is just that they’re willing to hear me,” Smith said.

If someone reaches out, psychology professor Patricia Frazier said, it’s best to be supportive.

“You don’t need to say the perfect thing,” she said. “You just need to be there.”