Open hearts, healthy minds

The scars of mental health problems may be hard to see, but they are an unfortunate part of most college campuses.

Recognizing this, UC Berkeley’s administration reached out to students last week to promote a survey asking important questions about the accessibility of mental health resources on campus as well as about individual students’ mental well-being. The administration deserves credit for promoting the survey, developed by RAND Corp. for the California Mental Health Services Authority, but the fight against depression and mental health issues is larger than just what’s on our campus.

Berkeley doctoral student Scott Wallin, who studies cognitive disabilities, characterized it to The Daily Californian in spring 2013 like this: “If I break my arm, there’s no stigma against going to the doctor and getting it fixed, but if I’m feeling stressed, if I can’t do my work or maintain relationships … (the question becomes,) what’s wrong with me? Am I weak? Why can’t I be normal?”

Overcoming stereotypes and biases concerning mental and emotional problems, particularly depression, is a struggle that is of particular interest to college students. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four people between the ages of 18 and 24 has a diagnosable mental illness. More than 11 percent of American college students reported having undergone treatment for anxiety, and more than 10 percent reported receiving treatment for depression. And most jarringly, suicide is the second-leading cause of death on college campuses across the country.

While opening a campuswide conversation about mental and emotional health issues is of paramount interest to any college campus, UC Berkeley, with its large number of high-achieving students and rigorous academic environment, can be a particularly stressful place at times. Aaron Cohen, a psychologist working at the University Health Services Tang Center, told the Daily Cal that Berkeley is an “intense” place with “stress, anxiety and depression” for many students.

This perception of Berkeley, reinforced by the stigmas mentioned by Wallin, often leads many students to ignore signs of distress or tension, and they subsequently let their symptoms go untreated. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 40 percent of students with mental health conditions don’t seek help, and 57 percent choose not to request accommodations from their school.

Many students are aware of the resources available but feel trapped by stigmas surrounding mental health issues. Additionally, a number of students don’t know about the counseling services the Tang Center offers or the support lines available 24 hours a day. The campus has recognized this and has repeatedly urged faculty members and campus staff to be aware of the warning signs of suicide and depression. Still, this may not be enough.

To truly build a healthier, more supportive community, we need to be cognizant of the warning signs of mental health issues and encourage one another to be open about internal struggles.

Almost half of all college students report that at some point in the last year, they felt they were too depressed to function normally. The sad truth is that many among us didn’t or were not able to reach out for help, and a good deal of us failed to offer the right kind of help at the right time.

Look for the warning signs, and keep an open mind about others’ needs. As individuals, we may be able to make a significant impact on the lives of a few people we know, but as a campus, we can do even more than that. And if we believe ourselves to be a community that truly cares about one another, we must do more than that.