Let’s Open Up the Dialogue Around Mental Health on Campus

Alexi Chacon By Alexi Chacon, April 26, 2016

Mental health is a pervasive issue on college campuses across the country. Student suicides occur far too often. In early April, the University of Pennsylvania experienced its tenth student suicide within three years. Students and faculty must work together to change the culture on their respective campuses in order to reduce the stigma around mental health.

London, 2009. Via Flickr (@victius)
London, 2009. Via Flickr (@victius)

The stigma associated with seeking help must be diminished. Too often, you find that those who need help feel an unwarranted shame because of the culture on college campuses. There seems to be an unspoken understanding that we must all be perfect. We must maintain a 4.0 GPA while competing for competitive internships and also still manage to have an unparalleled social life. College campuses often create an environment in which a mistake isn’t seen as a lesson to learn but instead as a permanent failure.

The grief experienced by the Penn community this April was palpable. This tragic loss has forced the Penn community to take a step back and evaluate what has been lacking in the efforts to improve mental health on campus. Even if you didn’t know the student, you feel the loss. You wonder if there is anything you could’ve done. You wonder if there’s anyone within your circle of friends who needs someone to ask them how they’re doing. The discussion of mental health has been revived on our campus, but it shouldn’t take a tragedy for other college campuses to do the same.

The student body of each college campus has the power to change the narrative in terms of mental health. A dialogue needs to be started, but this dialogue won’t gain traction unless there is participation from the student body. There has to be a movement that redefines what mental health means to students. Once students speak to each other about the mental health struggles they undergo each day, the stigma is weakened. To stay silent would be the worst thing we could do for our community. The moment we start talking, the issues that plague our mental health are no longer struggles we undertake on our own—they become struggles that we can overcome together.

Let’s empower ourselves with the ability to collaboratively reduce the stigma around mental health by providing support to each other as a community.

We need to stop acting as if nothing is wrong. It can’t take a tragedy for us to recognize that the stress we feel every day is normal. Let me say it again—our stress that we feel is absolutely normal. The moment you bring it up, you’ll realize you’re not the only one facing stress. When the conversation gets started, student bodies will be able to define what resources each particular college community needs to diminish the stigma of seeking help for mental health and to make seeking help accessible for all.

via Flickr (@stevendepolo)
via Flickr (@stevendepolo)

Universities need to make policy changes that reform campus culture. Support systems must be established in all college campuses so that students feel comfortable discussing their mental health. Penn has been making an active effort to expand mental health resources, but students need to know that these resources are available. Staff must also be targeted in the effort to diminish the stigma around mental health. Staff and faculty should undergo training that equips them with the skills necessary to provide support to struggling students. Students should be given training as well that establishes how to help struggling students in the community. Let’s empower ourselves with the ability to collaboratively reduce the stigma around mental health by providing support to each other as a community.

We live in an environment in which success is defined by impossible standards. We have the power to redefine those standards. We as a community have the ability to say enough is enough. Let’s start this discussion on mental health, and turn this discussion into tangible change. This tangible change can be the simplest things, such as truly asking someone how he or she is doing. Signs of support within a community can make all the difference.

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