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Conference focuses on student mental health

Virginia Lozano/Daily
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By Joel Goldstein, For the Daily
Published March 13, 2014

Thursday concluded the University’s 12th Annual Depression on College Campuses Conference, an event that featured a variety of speakers and workshops focused on the mental health of college students.

The conference, hosted by the University of Michigan Health System and held at the Rackham Graduate School, featured speakers from various fields, weighing in on how to help young people deal with depression. The theme of the conference was fostering student success.

The National Institute of Mental Health study found that 30 percent of college students within the past year said they felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” While the program was designed to explore mental health on college campuses, the speakers addressed a variety of mental health topics.

Dr. Steven Southwick, a professor and researcher at Yale University, opened the conference Wednesday by speaking on resilience to stress and how new scientific advances can help individuals combat mental health issues.

Southwick’s research found that resilience can be promoted by internal factors such as humor and cognitive flexibility, as well as external factors such as religion and social support. Southwick said social isolation and loneliness can hurt mental and physical health alike.

“Isolation may be as detrimental to how long we live as obesity, cigarette smoking, hypertension and lack of physical activity,” Southwick said.

Southwick also spoke of his interviews with special forces soldiers during his research, having found that preparation and training are crucial to their resilience and ability to perform under pressure. Soldiers recovering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder often struggle to adapt to civilian life when surrounded by people who have never been to war.

“Feeling understood is the most powerful form of social support,” Southwick said.

Denise Kozikowski, a University academic adviser, gave a workshop Thursday describing the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Meditation and mindfulness training, specifically “Mindfulness-based stress reduction,” has been linked to raised standardized test scores as well as lowered mind wandering.

Kozikowski created Mindfulness@Umich out of the Newnan LSA Academic Advising Center. The program has grown in every year of its existence. Students who have been taught MBSR at Newnan were called on in a panel, and praised the program.

“Every student could benefit from mindfulness training,” Kozikowski said.

The event also featured Will Heininger, a former University football player, who spoke during the presentation of student awards. Heininger is campaigning to raise awareness for mental health issues that affect young people, and said he struggled with depression during his time at the University.

Rachel Dorsey, a senior at the Art Institute of Chicago, and LSA senior Ryan Dougherty received Student Mental Health Advocate awards at the conference.

Dorsey helped create her school’s chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Dougherty co-founded the Allies of Disability Awareness on campus and was elected as vice president of the Diversity Committee for the University’s Inter-Cooperative Council. As vice president, Dougherty worked to alleviate the social stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Daniel Eisenberg, associate professor of health management and policy, presented about the economics of providing student mental health services. Eisenberg has studied links between mental health issues and dropout rates amongst college students, finding that universities can have a positive return on investment in mental health resources. By setting up mental health services to keep at-risk students from dropping out, the school would increase tuition revenue by retaining more students.

“The cost would be half a million dollars, but the benefits would amount to several million dollars,” Eisenberg said.

A hypothetical mental health service could also bring in more money in the form of donations from alumni who didn’t drop out because of the treatment they received from the institution, he said.

Victor Strecher, professor of health behavior and health education, closed the conference with a speech detailing his personal life and work in helping others to live life with purpose. Strecher discussed his experiences after the death of his daughter and his subsequent battle with depression.

Strecher spoke of the trend in public health to try to scare individuals out of unhealthful behavior such as smoking and overeating. Strecher promotes purpose, and has found that focusing on positive aspects of life can change behavior more than scare tactics.

Strecher spoke about his book “On Purpose: The Graphic Novel,” which encourages its readers to find a purpose in life. In public health, he said he endorses self-affirmation, reminding oneself what one’s goals and values in life are. Strecher pointed to research that has found that people with purpose are less likely to develop depression, suicidal ideation and Alzheimer’s disease.