An estimated one in four Americans suffers from a mental health disorder, but less than half seek treatment, largely due to societal stigmas surrounding psychological issues. One University of Wisconsin student organization hopes to help change this alarming statistic.
UW psychology majors Mary Frances Martinco and Thomas Murphy revamped Active Minds, a student-run mental health awareness, education and advocacy organization, last fall to increase dialogue about these issues.
Martinco, having dealt with anxiety upon coming to the university in 2009, is no stranger to stigma. “I struggled a little, especially coming to college. It was a really hard transition for me, and I know that it is for a lot of other people, but I never really felt like I could talk about it, because I didn’t understand that other people were feeling the same way,” she said. “I didn’t know what I could to do get help on campus.”
Although University Health Services offers individual and group counseling, Martinco said the unending enthusiasm that tends to revolve around UW can lead to people struggling with mental health issues and disorders to stay silent, or worse, to exacerbate their problems and make them question their self-worth. A lack of exposure to information about disorders can also spark victim-blaming mentalities.
“Especially on this campus, it’s such a party school, it’s so much about having fun all the time. I feel like there’s not much of a sense that maybe people aren’t having that great experience,” she said. “And there’s just like a big deal when you come to college that everything’s going to be perfect, the time of your life. I just feel like people who have depression, or anxiety or anything, they just don’t feel like it’s normal.”
UW Active Minds has hosted an array of awareness-boosting events throughout the year, featuring hot cocoa giveaways, stress relievers and more.
In March, UW Active Minds, the National Alliance on Mental Illness-UW and UW Suicide Prevention joined forces with Redamte Coffee House to host an evening of music, poetry and artwork to spread awareness about the effect of mental health issues on the UW campus. Performers, including members of a cappella groups Fundamentally Sound and Tangled Up in Blue, shared their stories. And student artwork, as well as a board where attendees could share how mental health related to their lives, was on display throughout the month.
“I feel like expressing yourself is very important,” Martinco said. “People are scared of what’s going on in other people’s minds, or in their own minds.”
The group also works closely with UHS to improve student accessibility to mental health services on small and large scales.
Previously, when a student called the mental health crisis line at UHS, the first question the call operator would immediately ask them was their student ID number.
“We thought that was a little impersonal, so we got that changed,” she said. The group is also working on trying to make it easier for students to make appointments and building a resource list for off-campus mental health providers. Currently, UHS has a cap on the number of individual counseling sessions a student can attend, which may be frustrating for students who need long-term attention.
UW Active Minds also focuses on stress management and relief for the student population. The group celebrated National Stress Out Day in April by handing out stress balls to students at Union South, but with finals just around the corner, Martinco is coordinating a large-scale stress reliever Friday at noon – “The Scream.”
She and other Active Minds members will be stationed atop Bascom Hill. If at around noon, you find yourself thinking, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” pouring over papers and textbooks, you can let it all out with a synchronized scream.
Martinco recommended exercise, lots of sleep and venting to friends as tools for getting through finals week unscathed.
“My mother always tells me to work out, and I never listen to her. But whenever I do, it really helps a lot. So I encourage people to do that,” she said. “At least take a break and do something you like once in awhile. If it’s rewarding yourself with a couple hours of trashy TV or something like that, … just reward yourself for the time you put in.”
Some problems cannot be solved with a scream about finals. But none can be solved with silence.
Activeminds.org offers resources for students struggling with mental health problems, as well as strategies for students who are worried about a friend. The three most important things a friend can do, the website says, are talk with them without judgment, share their concern by helping their friend get support from someone with mental health expertise and take care of themselves.
“If you notice something’s not quite right with your friends, just ask them, and then listen. Don’t judge them; just listen openly to what they say. If they’re your friend, they will really value what you tell them,” Martinco said. “Always offer to go with them to UHS. But you can’t necessarily be your friend’s therapist for the sake of your own mental health.”
UHS offers 24-hour crisis intervention for students or for those concerned about a student at (608) 265-5600 ext. 9.
Next fall, Active Minds hopes to offer a one-credit internship program, where interns would be involved in planning events, hearing a speaker on a mental health topic and how they relate to college students each week. Martinco said the group focuses on positive psychology.
Involvement with UW Active Minds, she said, gave her an opportunity to help others that she could not have found elsewhere.
“I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how, and finding this organization gave me the drive I needed, knowing I would have support,” she said.
For more information about the group or how to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.