Groups work to destigmatize mental illness

Active Minds and Stamp Out Stigma educate students about depression.

Danielle Nordine

When University of Minnesota junior Nellie Brau was in high school, she suspected she might be suffering from depression and anxiety. But she didnâÄôt feel comfortable discussing her feelings with friends or family. âÄúI internalized the issue,âÄù said Brau, who is majoring in global studies and French. âÄúI was afraid to reach out, and I thought I would be judged or called crazy,âÄù she said. Eventually she spoke out about how she was feeling and was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety. After her diagnosis, Brau started an advocacy group at her high school aiming to destigmatize mental illnesses, and during her sophomore year at the University she joined a student group called Active Minds that has a similar goal. She is now president of the group. âÄúMental health has always been a âÄòhush-hushâÄô issue,âÄù she said. âÄúIt has always been stigmatized in society, and only now are we seeing people discussing it openly.âÄù Depression is the most common mental illness among college students. About 24 percent of college students have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, according to a 2008 Boynton Health Service survey, the most recent survey University students participated in. Dr. Gary Christenson, BoyntonâÄôs mental health clinic director, said the national fear that the number of people diagnosed with depression is rising is a misconception. âÄúWhat is actually happening is that there is a greater awareness and less stigmas,âÄù Christenson said. âÄúThere has been a steady increase in the use of mental health services, the bulk of which is for depression.âÄù The stigma exists, Christenson said, because of societal misunderstandings of mental illness. âÄúPhysical conditions are always more acceptable in all societies than mental conditions,âÄù he said. âÄúThere is this idea that people with mental illnesses are weak, and people canâÄôt easily acknowledge something they canâÄôt see.âÄù Clinical depressionâÄôs first indicator is the duration of the negative feelings, Christenson said. Two weeks of feeling down or depressed almost every day is usually the cutoff. Suicidal thoughts are also a clear indication that something is wrong, he said. Other signs of depression include changes in behavior, including sleeping all the time or not being able to fall asleep, no appetite, trouble concentrating and a general disinterest in social activities, he said. These symptoms can make college life difficult, Brau said. âÄúItâÄôs not easy to be pressured to get good grades, be involved on campus, have a job and a social life,âÄù she said. âÄúBut on top of that, if you have depression, itâÄôs really difficult to get through everyday tasks like homework and just going to class.âÄù Groups like Active Minds are trying to show students that resources are available, said group officer and biology senior Shirley Zhao. âÄúEveryoneâÄôs affected by mental health in some way, whether itâÄôs themselves, friends or family,âÄù she said. âÄúWe want students to know that there are many options for them to seek help on campus and to talk with people who can understand what theyâÄôre going through.âÄù A group called Stamp Out Stigma is working to educate students, faculty and staff about mental health issues to try to help demystify them, said group member and coordinator for the Aurora Center Jerie Smith. âÄúEducation is key to literally stamp out stigma,âÄù she said. The group has been providing education to faculty and staff about how to approach a student they suspect might be suffering from a mental illness and how to deal with the situation. Mental illnesses constitute a disability, Christenson said, so students can contact Disability Services to receive âÄúreasonable accommodationsâÄù in their courses. The University also provides counseling through the Boynton Mental Health Clinic and University Counseling and Consulting Services. Christenson said the elimination of the stigma surrounding mental illness is important in getting students to seek help and deal with their depression or other mental health issues. âÄúMore students are sharing their experiences with others, and hearing that, people may realize that they could have this illness,âÄù he said. âÄú[Students] feel relieved and more comfortable when other people are acknowledging that they are struggling with these issues too.âÄù