Student panel aims to destigmatize mental health
Four University of Michigan students talked openly about battling mental illness in college Friday evening as a part of a broader, University-wide Investing in Ability Week.
The panel discussion was led by Active Minds, a national organization that aims to promote destigmatizing mental illness, and was organized by the Council for Disability Concerns, a University-affiliated group of more than 200 volunteers who are interested in working in areas related to disabilities.
LSA junior Anjuli Shah, one of the four panelists, spoke about her first experience opening up to a friend about her mental illness and her struggle seeking professional help.
She said despite following common suggestions, like to work out, eat healthy and talk to her parents, she did not get better.
“I’ve been doing everything right,” she said. “But it’s been six years and my disease has been unrelenting.”
At the University and nationally, many students like Shah struggle with mental health, and the effects it can have on physical.
The University's Counseling and Psychological Services experienced an average 17% increase in demand for services in the 2014-2015 academic year, according to an annual report — more than four times the expected increase based on trends from previous years.
As demand for services has continued to grow, funding for CAPS has increased as well by more than 30 percent since 2011. In 2016 they received $3.0 million from the University’s General Fund.
However, in a previous interview, CAPS director Todd Sevig said they still grapple with how to distribute their resources.
LSA senior Priya Bhupalam, another panelist, spoke of her conflicting view on her personality and feelings during her freshman year in college when her mental illness was at its worst.
“I consider myself to be a very energetic individual,” she said. “But at that point, I wished that I never had to wake up.”
One of the most difficult parts of dealing with mental illness, Engineering sophomore Sharon Ye, another panelist, said, is coming to terms with the diagnosis and starting treatment.
“I was very hesitant to start treatment,” she said. “Going to therapy, taking medication … that was all entirely new to me. And I think I still struggle with it a little bit.”
Anna Ercoli Schnitzer, disability issues and outreach librarian and chair of a subgroup that coordinates with CFDC, said her organization invited University students from Active Minds to help facilitate the discussion with those struggling with mental illnesses.
LSA junior Jarrett Reichel, a representative of Active Minds at the University, said getting students to openly discuss mental illness is important to reducing the stigma surrounding it.
“Our main way is just talking about it and getting people to think about it and realize that it’s happening,” Reichel said.
The 2014-2015 CAPS report found that many students have identified common mental health concerns. Seventy-one percent of the University students seeking services from CAPS reported “anxiety” as a concern, 64 percent cited “depression” and 47 percent reported “self-esteem.”
Social Work student Kathleen Gorski said despite some progress in reducing the stigma, it's still challenging to deral with it in an environment with pressure to perform well, such as the University.
Forty-six percent of the University students seeking services from CAPS reported “academic problems” as a concern, according to the CAPS report.
“There’s been progress,” Gorski said. “But I think there is still a lot of stigma around mental health. People can still feel silenced in an academic or professional environment (because) there’s a lot of pressure to succeed.”
Engineering sophomore Anna Learis, another panelist, said she felt secluded from the larger community of mental illnesses because of the lack of media surrounding her type of disease, encouraging the audience to avoid defining themselves by their illness.
“The strength it takes to go through the process of change and self-discovery is immense,” she said. “Your illness may be a part of you, but in no way does it define you.”
Similarly, School of Social Work student Sumeyah Chaudhry, who attended the event, emphasized the importance of supportive spaces, like the event, which she said helps her understand different points of view.
“As an aspiring social worker, I think it’s very important to go to these events and gain a different perspective from cohorts and other students,” Chaudhry said.