Students and faculty from universities across the country gathered in Rackham Auditorium yesterday for the first day of a two-day conference intended to address depression on college campuses.
The University Depression Center has hosted the national conference for the past seven years in an effort to emphasize the importance of early detection and intervention in treating depression among college students.
This year’s conference, called “Many Faces, A New Look,” features two days of intensive three-hour workshops, keynote presentations and panel discussions.
The conference opened with a brief greeting from John Greden, executive director of the Depression Center. He emphasized the importance for those in attendance to bring the lessons they learn at the conference back to their respective communities.
“What you’re doing is serving as voices…and the voices need to go back home and do things that make a difference,” Greden said.
The University Educational Theater Company, led by director Callie McKee, performed during the conference’s opening. Titled “Invisible: Student Voices, Mental Health, and the College Experience,” the performance addressed the stigmas attached to mental health issues and the importance of recognizing the prevalence of depression.
The Heard, an organization which aims to eliminate the stigma related to mental health issues and to promote an open discussion surrounding mental health, was also present at the conference.
Colleen Coffey, program manager of The Heard, spoke to University students at one of the conference’s workshops. Coffey said in an interview that the purpose of her workshop is to educate students about depression and inspire them to bring mental health to the forefront of the campus conversation.
About a quarter of college students will be diagnosed with a mental illness but all of them will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives, Coffey said.
Coffey added that, over the past 10 years, the number of college students with depression has doubled and the number of students who have expressed suicidal thoughts has tripled. She said despite the trend, mental health issues remain taboo.
“Most people don’t understand these issues, and what they don’t understand, they tend to stray away from,” she said.
At the workshop, Coffey told students her own personal story about depression. She said she began to feel signs of the illness when she was four years old and by eighth grade she despised her parents, stole her father’s car and fled to St. Louis as a result of the disease.
Forced to repeat the eighth grade at a boarding school, Coffey said she began coping with her depression through an eating disorder and was sent home before her parents put her in a mental hospital.
Coffey said she completed high school, attended Belmont University and acquired a master’s degree from Eastern Illinois University. Throughout that time she said she was in and out of treatment and struggled with episodes of depression during her parents’ divorce and a harsh break up.
By sharing her story, Coffey said she hoped to break down the stigma that caused most students to associate the term “mental health” with people like Britney Spears and Michael Jackson.
“The next time that you think about mental health, I want you to think about me…I am a doctoral student, a good employee…a fully functional member of society in spite of the things I have gone through,” she said.
Coffey ended the workshop with a dialogue on how to make mental illness something students at the University can feel comfortable discussing.
“We are not just talking about illnesses that are stigmatized,” Coffey said. “We’re talking about people who mean something to the world…who are missing out on life.”