Breaking the stigma behind mental health

We can all be more understanding

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

By Emma Garber, Collegian Columnist

It is no secret that mental health often falls second to physical health in terms of treatment and recognition. When you break a bone or fall physically ill you are taken seriously; you are met with Hallmark sympathy cards and an empathetic sense of understanding. However, those who face a mental health diagnoses are not met with the same treatment.

Stigma surrounding mental health may not come as a surprise anymore, but it is nevertheless disappointing. Though this idea is visible everywhere, it is especially prevalent on college campuses. At the University of Massachusetts, when you come down with the “plague” or sprain your ankle at the gym, people know how to respond. Friends know to loan their Dayquil or recommend physical therapy and, if all else fails, you can always make a trip to University Health Services. But when your struggle is internal, the same is not always true.

While food is a fun, social part of daily life in college for many, we often forget that many people combat internal battles with their eating habits. This battle may be heightened at UMass where our reigning status as America’s number one dining has led to a food-driven culture, visible at every corner of campus. Signs for UMass Dining are plastered on the walls of the football stadium and nearly every academic building contains some sort of cafe. Trash and recycling bins overflow with empty coffee cups and grab-and-go containers, all serving as reminders of food everywhere one turns. To many, these examples are just a normal part of their routine, likely to not be given a second thought and nothing to lose sleep over. But to some, the constant conversation surrounding food can be a habitual nightmare – a daily battle they are always faced with. Young adults are most likely to develop an eating disorder in their college years, with 10 to 20 percent of women and four to 10 percent of men in college suffering from an eating disorder. For those suffering from an eating disorder, simply entering the dining hall could be a daunting task. The little green bars and calorie counts next to every item being served can be an automatic trigger, and the social nature of dining can lead to embarrassing, pressure-filled situations. Though this emphasis on food should not necessarily disappear altogether, we currently lack sympathetic sentiments toward the notion that some of us may struggle with food.

This lack of sympathy is similarly felt toward students who suffer from anxiety or depression. Earlier this year, Massachusetts Daily Collegian columnists commented on the collegiate pressure to lead a perfect, fun-filled life. The pressure to maintain this facade, all while balancing the pressures of academia, can lead to extreme feelings of stress, loneliness and battles with one’s mental health. Anxiety and depression rates are rapidly increasing, with nearly 40 percent of college students reporting depression levels that made it difficult to function and 61 percent reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the spring of 2017, in a survey with the American College Health Association. While these conditions may be common, this does not lessen the severity of each struggle. Many who suffer from either depression or anxiety report feeling isolated or alone on such a large campus. Taking time off, whether it be for a short or extended period of time, can be essential to focusing on one’s mental health. But, when I spoke with a student who chose to take a semester off to focus on their anxiety, they recounted to me how uncomfortable it was to explain this to others. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding time off from school can add to the isolation one feels, since even taking a “mental health day” can be mistaken for laziness.

It is upsetting that despite the number of students who suffer from mental health conditions, many still feel isolated or forgotten about. On top of all of this, UMass continuously fails to provide adequate counseling resources to its students. The school’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Health has made it extremely difficult for students to meet with a counselor, some patients waiting weeks before their needs were met. As a result, those struggling with mental health are left misunderstood, isolated from their peers and lacking the guidance of a mental health provider who could further their recovery. As a community, we can strive to lessen the stigma and burden people struggling with mental health feel. We can recognize that college may come with a unique set of challenges for many, whether it be the stress of the dining hall or the anxieties of daily life. We can meet their battles with sympathy, replacing probing questions with listening ears. We can, and must, create a community that makes everyone feel at home.

Emma Garber is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]