Photo campaign opens up mental health struggles

Every day for a week, one student’s story about their mental illness experience will be posted with their photo to destigmatize mental illnesses.

Kayla Song

Having struggled with anxiety and depression since middle school, one member of the Minnesota Student Association at the University of Minnesota felt compelled to put student faces to mental illness on campus.

Elizabeth Flores, a freshman nursing major, is spearheading a mental health photo campaign in response to rising rates of mental illness on college campuses. The campaign will run from March 26 to 31, featuring six students and their stories.

“We were really trying to get personal experiences within campus, people that you might see in class,” Flores said. “At the end of the day, everyone has had stress at some level, and we thought it was important to demonstrate that.”

The campaign also focuses on the University’s increasing number of mental health resources, said Aaron Wald, neuroscience junior and photo campaign participant. The Mental Health Clinic at Boynton Health has seen a 25 percent increase in the number of students using its services since fiscal year 2015, said Gary Christenson, chief medical officer at Boynton Health.

“There’s … more staff for mental health than there is for primary care, which is the first in the history of Boynton Health,” Christenson said. “It just reflects the high demand that we’ve had on the system.”

According to a student mental health report from last year from the University, one in three students have been diagnosed with a mental illness prior to or during college. 

“Hopefully anyone going through mental health issues … can read these stories, and it might make them feel slightly more comfortable talking about their own,” Wald said. “It shows them that other people are going through the exact same thing as them and that they’re not alone.”

According to Christenson, the biggest contributor to the stigma surrounding mental illness is personal perceptions of those with mental illnesses.

A Healthy Minds Network study from last year showed 4.1 percent of students at the University say they would think less of someone struggling with a mental illness. However, 35.5 percent said they thought others would think less of someone with a mental illness. 

“If you have a panic attack and somebody around you doesn’t know what a panic attack is, you look kind of crazy,” said Julia Carpenter, pre-graphic design freshman and photo campaign participant who goes to Boynton once or twice a month for therapy and medication.

“It seems like you’re having a heart attack, but nothing is wrong except for the fact that you’re worried,” Carpenter said, adding that she is diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and struggles with perfectionism.

Being vulnerable or living with a mental illness can be seen as a weakness, Flores said, and sharing it others can be the most difficult part. 

“That whole part of saying that you have a problem, that’s just hard for a lot of people,” Flores said.