Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness in College


Take even a tentative step into the arena of mental health advocacy, and one word you will hear repeated again and again is stigma.

The tendency to stigmatize others is something that exists to some degree in all of us, often subconsciously, and it can exact a heavy emotional toll on those on the receiving end of it. In the case of stigma around mental health on college campuses, that price can be very high and even cost the lives of students who need help but are often too afraid of the social consequences to ask for it.

In response to this issue, countless students, faculty, and outside advocates have risen up and made efforts to curb the stigma with education and studies aimed at better understanding what creates this corrosive atmosphere for those who are struggling. One study by a UCLA research team found that on college campuses where there is a greater degree of stigma around mental health treatment fewer students seek treatment.

A significant source of the stigma surrounding mental health is, paradoxically, rooted in experiences with people who are not getting the help they need, despite its availability. But alienation from one's peers is far from the highest potential price paid by those afraid to seek treatment.

Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, a statistic that is especially frightening for the many of us who know people who are struggling with mental health issues. In fact, the same UCLA research analysis mentioned above revealed that college students who experience suicidal thoughts are less likely to seek treatment if they go to school where there is a high level of stigma around mental health issues.

There is no doubt that this is a hard topic to discuss — both for those who suffer from mental health issues and for those who have never had any experience whatsoever with mental illness. The importance of a frank discussion and exchange of perspectives is essential if we're to dispel the many misconceptions surrounding mental illnesses.

One such misconception is that mental illness is an isolated problem that only affects a few. Mental illness can affect all people, from all backgrounds and creeds. In fact, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, according to the World Health Organization. Too many people believe that mental health conditions only affect those who are born with the genetic predisposition to exhibit them. The truth is much more complicated than that.

The importance of a frank discussion and exchange of perspectives is essential if we're to dispel the many misconceptions surrounding mental illnesses.

While genetic markers do play a significant role in the development of mental health conditions, DNA is only part of the story. Anyone can experience a mental health episode, especially those who are under undue emotional pressure. In this way mental health frequently plays a part in other social movements and can hinder people's progress in finding self-fulfillment.

A prime example of this can be found in the LGBT community, where young people are four times more likely to kill themselves than their heterosexual counterparts, and more than half of individuals who identify as transgender experience depression or anxiety.

In the African American community, meanwhile, teengagers are more likely than most of their peers to attempt suicide, and adults are 20 percent more likely than white adults to report serious psychological distress.

A victory against the stigma that prevents people from seeking treatment can have rolling positive effects throughout society.

A second detrimental misconception is the idea that people who suffer from mental illness are likely to be dangerous and should be avoided. This is a sentiment I've encountered many times in my efforts as an advocate, and it is an example of how misinformation can slow the movement toward understanding. In reality, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. What we need in order to end the stigma is a greater reliance on facts, and a refusal as a society to give in to fear, misinformation, and pernicious myths.

The good news is that this problem has been in the public eye for quite a while, and many great minds in and out of the college environment have made the reduction of stigma their mission. These efforts have yielded promising results, many simply through education that informs people about the truth of mental illness. On college campuses, in particular, social movements such as the chapters of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) on Campus, like the one I had the privilege of being a part of, are making headway against stigma.

Data published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that education-based interventions demonstrated a significant impact on personal stigma, perceptions of empowerment, discrimination, attitudes towards seeking treatment, and intentions to seek treatment from formal sources.

The world is a complex place, and all of us struggle with challenges and troubles that not everyone else will relate to. But that is the very reason we should always be looking to expand our understanding.

Today the medical field has so much to offer in the way of therapy and pharmaceutical treatment, more than at any time in the past. So the next time someone tells you that they think they might be suffering from a mental illness and they don't know what to do, encourage them to seek treatment. Be understanding — because the odds are good that one day it will be someone you care about who’s doing the asking.

See more helpful articles:

A Student Mental Health Bill of Rights: What's Needed?

6 Things You Should Know About College Depression