Ali Safawi: Missing the mark on mental health

Sunday, January 7, 2018 - 5:22pm

I belong to “The Broken Generation,” at least according to a story run by Maclean’s (think Canada’s The Atlantic) in 2012.

 

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Aggregate survey data from the Healthy Minds Network run out of the University of Michigan show 25 percent of college students report having depression. This statistic comes from no small study; Healthy Minds has had over 175,000 survey respondents to date.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, and mental illness is a serious public health issue. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Among young adults aged 15 to 24, suicide was the third leading killer in 2010. Alcohol use disorder, which is a form of mental illness, is also widespread among college students (20 percent) with about one in four of us reporting academic consequences from alcohol and more than 1,800 of us are dying each year due to an alcohol-related injury.

Of course, you probably already knew that mental health was a concern on campus. Regardless of how you feel about the University’s handling of student mental health, their messaging has been anything but subtle. For what seems like a thousand times, I have been told about the existence of the Counseling and Psychological Services, also known as CAPS: by housing staff, by professors and by University administration in tritely-worded emails. CAPS is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Almost every unit or group on campus seems to want to do something surrounding mental health, be it the backpacks on the Diag commemorating those lost to suicide to Central Student Government’s myriad of destress events. Like I said, anything but subtle.

As a University student with a mental illness, I appreciate the amount of positive discourse the subject gets; however, important points, ones that have been critical in my own journey, are too often lost or glossed over.

I have had a mental health problem since at least middle school; however, I did not face my depression until the very end of my senior year of high school. It took the advice of a very good friend for me to realize what was going on and to seek help. Then began a journey toward overcoming that mental illness, a journey that I am still on today.

The first point that campus discourse on mental health, in my opinion, misses is the power of knowing your enemy. I believe that a diagnosis, be it for depression, general anxiety, social anxiety, etc., can be an important step toward improving mental health. For me, having something to expect from my mental health problem, i.e. racing negative thoughts, empowers me to put these thoughts in their context so they do not cause me distress. Incessant, percussive doubts like those that told me I had no true friends used to make me feel even worse. Now, however, I can recognize those thoughts as a symptom of depression and that there is no logical basis for those doubts. It’s not easy to do; after all, these are my thoughts. Nevertheless, learning to understand symptoms as symptoms has been enormously helpful to me.

According to University research, only 34 to 36 percent of college students with mood disorders (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder) seek treatment. Why are so many students neglecting care? It’s not because they are not aware of treatment options on campus. Instead, the most common given reasons are "I prefer to deal with issues on my own," "I question how serious my needs are," "stress is a normal part of college" and "no time."  

Many people I have talked to who do not seek treatment for mental illness espouse a similar idea: that they know what is causing them stress and therefore can act to relieve it and relieve their mental illness. While I often know the source of my stress (e.g., an organic chemistry exam) and what I need to do (get the exam over with), that stress has a life of its own. This can most clearly be felt when I have done everything imaginable to ensure a satisfactory outcome but still the stress persists. Furthermore, just because the source of the stress is known does not mean that that stress is any less real or burdensome.

The journey I have been on, with mental illness as my companion, has not been a linear progression. Sometimes, in fact, it seems that for every step forward I take, I must take three steps back. A second issue that mental health discourse on campus neglects is painting a realistic picture of treatment. There is no guarantee that any medication your doctor prescribes will help, and the same goes for psychotherapy. When promoting mental health, the University and other entities need to be candid about this nuance. Otherwise, I fear that those who do seek help will be turned off to the process far too early.

These things take time. I have been on four different medications since I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2015 and have just started going to CAPS in addition to the medication I am currently on. Mental illnesses are complex but treatable. The right treatment is out there, it just may take a while to find. I wish I had really known that when I started my journey.

I acknowledge that everyone is different, and so is their mental health. I present the lessons I have learned in my own journey both to continue my healing and to hopefully inspire further nuanced dialog on this critical subject.

 

Ali Safawi can be reached at asafawi@umich.edu