A continuum of mental health

The “empathy tent” on Sproul Plaza during dead week last semester offered counseling advice to students feeling emotionally taxed under the weight of the looming finals. There is no doubt that exams are highly stressful to students, and I hoped they walked out of the tent happier. As I sat on the steps of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union watching students troop in and out of the empathy tent, I wondered about what kinds of mental health issues were being covered.

The scene on the steps of the campus made me think of how mental health can range from the pre-exam stress of a student to conditions that may need longer-term management. Most people experience mental health issues at many points in their lives, and mental health itself is a continuum.

I took professor Stephen Hinshaw’s developmental psychopathology class last semester and am currently an undergraduate research assistant in his lab. Hinshaw is known for his research on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the stigma surrounding mental illness. What had really struck me in the very first lecture in his class was that the World Health Organization had deemed mental disorders some of the most impairing of illnesses, as their impacts are felt in every area of life, from relationships to education to employment.

Hinshaw points to two overwhelming stereotypes of people with mental health conditions: that they are violent or incompetent. Media portrayals highlighting the recent mass shooters as mentally ill only reinforce this stereotype of violence. The blame for societal violence should not just be pointed at mental illness. There is also the other image of individuals with mental illness portrayed in movies in which they are depicted as people who are somehow mentally incompetent, providing justification for exclusion.

Both of these stereotypes are terribly unfair because as we learned in class, a majority of people with mental illness fall in the mild to moderate range, with struggles ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression to attention issues.

Mental illness can often affect you on a very personal level. There had been an absolutely stunned reaction from all the students present after a lecture in which Hinshaw spoke of his own childhood experiences with a father who was wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia instead of bipolar disorder.

The bottom line is that mental health needs to receive the same care and level of treatment as physical illness. But the reality is that mental health is a second-class citizen in the world of medical care. Careers in mental health are not the most desired professions in health care — there are too few mental health professionals, and most have long waitlists. UC Berkeley is making efforts in this area by not only hiring more counselors at the Tang Center but also engaging in mental health outreach in the residence halls to promote discussion of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. But I have to wonder whether this is enough for a student body of more than 40,000.

As students, we are psychologically in a vulnerable age group, with suicide being the second-leading cause of death among college students. Yet the urban myth is that the college years are the happiest times of your life. It was a surprise for me to find out that the onset of many illnesses such as bipolar and depression is highest in the late teens and 20s. But ultimately, it is the stigma around mental illness that silences us and makes us reluctant to ask for help.

“People may get despairing before they get treatment. … If we can replace silence with talk, if we can replace despair with access to treatment, we can put a dent in the rising suicide rate,” Hinshaw said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

Interestingly enough, the essence for me from this class and from my work as a research assistant is that we students are at the age when attitudes, both positive and stigmatizing, get consolidated. I’ve always wondered about this, as students entering UC Berkeley come from all sorts of backgrounds with many varying views.

What this means is that the views and attitudes we form now will carry over into the rest of our lives. That puts us students in a position to effect change for generations to come, in both removing the stigma surrounding mental health and creating greater access to mental health care. On campus there are organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Active Minds that students can join to influence change.

At the end of the day, all of us will be on the continuum of mental health throughout our lives, and all of us will personally benefit from any action we undertake now that positively impacts the issues that surround mental health.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected] .