Viewpoint: A new approach to student mental health concerns

BY NICHOLAS RAJA

Published November 30, 2014

The weekend of Nov. 14, 35 University students from across campus came together at the Colombiere Conference and Retreat Center in Clarkston, Michigan to receive training as group leaders in anticipation of next semester’s kickoff of the Wolverine Support Network, a University-wide initiative to promote student mental health and wellness. I will add, as a caveat, that I will be working as one of these group leaders myself.

According to its mission statement, the WSN aims to become “the first sustainable peer to peer led structure at the University of Michigan.” This network will provide another way for students who are struggling with issues impacting their mental well-being to express their concerns and generate catharsis. It’s important to note that WSN will be available to all University students, and participants need not have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition. The program’s inception originated with Public Policy senior Bobby Dishell, current CSG president, as one of the key components of his and LSA junior Meagan Shokar’s 2014 Make Michigan campaign platform. Both he and Shokar felt that the issue of student mental health was not being given adequate attention, and indeed, data collected by the University seem to support such a conclusion.

A College Student Mental Health Survey conducted by the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services in 2010 reported several striking statistics. Of the 2,358 students surveyed, approximately one in four noted that mental health issues had caused problems in their academics. Thirteen percent admitted to having inflicted non-suicidal self-injury, and 40.3 percent had been impacted in some way by a traumatic event, with females, LGB individuals (no data were reported for students identifying as transgender or queer), Latin@s, African-Americans and multiracial individuals experiencing the highest prevalence of traumatic experience. Furthermore, 74 percent of participants voiced general concern about their ability to succeed academically, and 73 percent expressed some level of dissatisfaction with their weight.

Despite their high prevalence among college students, mental health conditions continue to be heavily stigmatized in the United States as a whole. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “only 25 percent of adults with mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness,” suggesting that there exists a profound fear of the judgment or ostracism that may result from being diagnosed with mental health symptoms. This stigma is what the Wolverine Support Network hopes to erase from the University campus.

“I see … a place where all niches of campus come to create a new culture of the University,” said one WSN group leader.

Beginning in January 2015, interested students will be placed in groups of 12 to 15 of their peers, along with a pair of student leaders. Throughout the semester these groups will meet weekly to confidentially address and support the varying needs of their members. Students will be placed with students they’ve never met, in an attempt to allow free speech without fear of judgment from their friends. It’s not therapy, and it’s not counseling. It’s a safe space for University students to gather together with others who come from a diversity of backgrounds, in order to share their struggles, their triumphs or any issue that they would like to address. Furthermore, every other Friday, members of all groups will participate in a large group activity, so that people have the opportunity to get to know other members of the WSN in a fun and relaxing setting. Activities may include anything from group yoga sessions or guided meditation to outings to different venues around Ann Arbor. The network has been months in the making and remains an ever-evolving entity. As part of the leader retreat, student leaders were encouraged to critically examine the structure of the program, to create together something that would become an integral part of University culture moving into the future. As a participant in the weekend, I found it to be a transformative experience, and I think many of my co-leaders would say the same.

Another WSN group leader said, “It will provide a home away from home for people who are struggling.”

In order to build trust among those in attendance, the first night was dedicated to getting to know one another and sharing thoughts about or our connections to mental health. I was deeply moved by the experiences of my peers, many of whom have been impacted in some way by traumatic or painful experiences, including suicide, abuse, depression and anxiety, among many others. Equally moving were the stories of those who, despite no apparent connection to mental health issues in their lives, felt so passionately about the topic and believed so strongly in the mission of the Wolverine Support Network.

“It’ll become a great community through which students can meet new people and bounce ideas off of one another in a safe, inclusive, and action-oriented environment.” – WSN group leader

The entirety of Saturday was spent on leader education. Experts from CAPS, the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, Wolverine Wellness and University Housing’s Diversity Education program gave lectures on a wide range of topics. As a group, we learned about the prevalence of depression and anxiety on college campuses, and how to recognize signs that a person might be contemplating suicide. We received instruction on how to best provide support to survivors of sexual assault and how to make them aware of the numerous resources available to them on campus. Additionally, we were taught about the ways in which substance abuse can impact student life and how to maintain a comfortable environment for individuals of every race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, age and religion.

Though our education was, of course, not exhaustive, it provided a solid framework from which to proceed. Furthermore, it was emphasized that we were not mental health professionals and should be prepared to direct students to appropriate campus resources. Leaders will continue to receive training on a variety of health topics throughout the semester.

“It will aid in de-stigmatizing mental health” — WSN group leader.

Sunday was spent working as a group to define what we really wanted the Wolverine Support Network to become. I found that everyone had a unique vision for the future of the initiative. The most common themes focused on simply creating a community, one where everyone on campus would feel safe, included and valued, and one that would continue to develop and change just like our diverse student body. That afternoon, 35 people who had been strangers less than 72 hours before stepped off the bus by the Union as friends, energized and optimistic about the future of mental health at the University.

If you or anyone you know might be interested in joining a WSN group next semester, please feel free to sign up at http://bit.ly/WSNMember or direct any questions to wsndirectors@umich.edu because, as we all know too well, life happens.

Nicholas Raja is an LSA junior.