University conference focuses on mental health issues

By Irene Park, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 12, 2015

According to a survey conducted by the American College Health Association in 2011, 30 percent of college students have reported at some point in the previous year feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

The National Mental Health Institute states that depression may not only affect a student’s ability to function, but is also major health risk for suicide and other forms of self-harm.

The University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center hosted the 13th annual Depression on College Campuses conference on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss how student wellness, and especially depression, can be addressed to allow students to perform their best.

University President Mark Schlissel, who gave the welcoming remarks for the opening keynote Wednesday, said one-third of college students suffer from some type of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, but only one-half of the students who suffer receive help.

Schlissel emphasized the importance of a support network among students to prevent mental health issues.

“We are broadening the way to address these illnesses and learning that peer support is vitally important among students,” Schlissel said.

In September, Central Student Government and Counseling launched the Wolverine Support Network, a program designed to provide peer support for students on campus.

Dr. John Greden, the executive director and founder of UMDC, said the amount of years the event has existed reflects the importance of addressing mental heath issues among college students.

“People who attend keep saying we need to continue,” Greden said.

Michael Young, former vice chancellor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was the keynote speaker. During his speech, he said mental health issues are much more prevalent in modern university environments in the United States than they were in previous years.

“Why are so many more students having psychological and psychiatric issues than in the past?” Young asked the crowd.

Outlining the work of a committee on mental health he co-chaired during his time in the UC system, Young said the higher rates might come from a combination of factors: the lack of a wide availability of counseling and medication, the age of mental illness onset corresponding with the average age of the student body and students struggling to deal with failure.

He also mentioned several other stressors that might contribute to higher incidence of mental health issues in recent years, such as helicopter parents, increasing global turmoil after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a poor job market.

Rick Warren, associate professor of psychiatry, led a workshop during the conference focusing on how self-criticism could affect students’ mental health. He said high self-criticism and low self-compassion both pose a high risk for developing depression.

Warren said students can also put themselves at risk of depression when they connect their self-worth to achieving their goals and said students need to accept themselves unconditionally regardless of their performance.

“Students need to set goals that are self-concordant,” Warren said.

Self-concordant refers to the concept that individuals should pursue goals because they want to, not because they feel other people will approve.

The conference also recognized two students for the Student Mental Health Advocate Award, LSA senior Siang-Chean Kua and Ashli Haggard, a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The two students were recognized for their leadership in campus mental health by raising awareness of mental health issues, advocating for mental health services and reducing stigma around mental illnesses.

Kua wrote in an e-mail interview with the Daily that he was motivated to get involved in mental health issues on campus through volunteering at the University Hospital’s inpatient psychiatry unit.

“I realized that a number of patients admitted into the unit were students like myself,” Kua wrote. “That helped me understand the scale of mental health issues to a greater degree and inspired me to do something on the student level.”

According to Kua, there weren’t any University student groups dedicated to mental health at the time. He said this motivated him and several friends to establish a Michigan chapter of Active Minds, an organization focused on promoting student discussions about mental health to educate and encourage students to seek help.

Kua, who is currently a member of Active Minds as well as the Healthy Minds Coalition, wrote that Active Minds aims to promote student dialogues as well as “reframe and reprioritize mental health on campus” using diverse methods including mobile applications, video series and monologues.

“For the current semester, a mental health monologues event is currently being planned where we plan to have speakers discuss their own thoughts and experiences regarding mental health,” Kua wrote.