Before meeting with president of Active Minds, Sarah Berendt, to talk about mental health and what their organization does to address such an expansive issue, I got to thinking about the more specific mental health issue of stress and the role that it plays in college culture.
We college students long for coffee-filled I.V. drips; we live off of less than eight hours of sleep, and weekends always seem to fly by without our even making a dent in our piles of homework. College culture never sleeps, and our overtaxed minds and bodies are the poster children for the effects of stress.
Why is it that we can have this public acceptance of stress, but the subject of mental health is taboo? Even the mere mention of the phrase seems to function as a cue to for us to collectively cast our eyes downward and drop the subject.
Stress defines our culture, but at the same time, its effects are also pervasively a part of the mental health discussion; this should be obvious considering that Active Mind's Stress Less Week (April 21-26) is just behind us, and the Lourdes' University chapter of Active Minds hosted their own version of the event the following week.
During my interview with Sarah I couldn't shake the ideas about stress that had been bouncing around my head, so I asked for her opinion on what I had been mentally debating: "Do you think that having such a positive public understanding of stress could mean good things for encouraging a public understanding of other mental illnesses?"
Our resulting discussion didn't necessarily answer my question because both of us hadn't ever really thought about the issue in that way. Sarah said that Active Minds likes to keep a particular distinction: "Everybody has mental health, not everybody has a mental illness...so many people, when they hear mental health, it's like they think of crazy – like mental illness." Mental illness may be an aspect of mental health conversation, but it's too often the first thing that comes to mind. It seems as if in many ways, stress has become an overused part of mainstream conversation in the same sense that mental illness has taken over the conversation of mental health.
Although this was of major interest to me, my interview with Sarah Berendt was more than just a philosophical discussion about stress, my main mission was to get the answers to the questions that I had about Active Minds and mental health. The rest of this article gets into the truth that Sarah wanted to share with the bigger audience of Lourdes.
Active Minds isn't just a Lourdes creation; it is a national organization claiming hundreds of college chapters across North America. Active Minds is doing a lot to start conversations about some of the most stigmatized topics: Mental well-being and the people who struggle or suffer from mental illness.
Sarah confidingly explained to me part of what really inspired her to bring Active Minds to Lourdes: "Lourdes didn't really have any mental health services. I mean, we have the Sophia Center, but there weren't any specific groups devoted to mental health, and so I decided to take the initiative and bring one here, to help myself, and to help everybody else that deals with a mental illness or that may know somebody that deals with a mental illness."
Perhaps people who suffer with mental illness may still be a minority, but the need for action is still an issue on college campuses. Sarah told me that depression and suicidal thoughts rank extremely high as issues that college students commonly deal with. For issues of mental wellness, it's good that a group like Active Minds is more than just a student organization; it is an environment that's been created to make talking about commonly misunderstood issues a little bit easier.
At first, even Sarah was a little uneasy talking about mental health and disease – though obviously she quickly overcame and embraced any discomfort. She told me that "the motto behind Active Minds is 'changing the conversation about mental health.' And it's really starting that conversation too because a lot of people don't wanna talk about it."
And Active Minds has very clearly started that conversation. I'm sure that many students have noticed the friendly reminders on the doors of bathroom stalls, the tear-away compliment pages, and even the Active Minds table that is occasionally set up in front of the Welcome Center. It's these types of proactive gestures that are proving to be extremely effective on the front lines of "changing the conversation" about mental illness.
Along with what Active Minds is doing as a whole, changing stigma and old habits starts on the individual level. One of the most powerful first steps that we can each take would be to change the way that we use mental illness references. I was on board when Sarah stated that "erasing those negative stereotypes" are what is important in changing and improving conversation.
The negative stereotypes that we were referring to sometimes are hidden in offhand comments such as the weather has been so bipolar this Spring, or I get really OCD about my foods touching on my plate. These are comments that only further ingrain the stigma that has been attached to mental illness. Throwing out these inappropriate references, asking questions about illnesses that we don't understand, and taking the time to learn about mental health are all ways that we can open up our minds and get a better understanding for what we can do for ourselves and how we can better understand mental illness.
Another way we can work to change the discussion of stress and overall mental health during these last few days of the semester would be to participate in what Active Minds is doing right now. The University's own Stress Less Week just passed us by during the week of April 28, and the president of Active Minds told me about their social media campaign that they had going on during their Stress Less Week. The main idea behind the campaign was to use social media – whether you're a user of Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook – and find a way to publicly post an example of self-care. If you post a picture of yourself making a salad, getting to bed early, heading to the gym, or any other type of self care, just add the #LUselfcareselfie or #selfcareselfie hashtag to connect to the online discussion and encouragement of self care and mental health.
So in between the all-nighters and studying for exam week, take the time to talk to an Active Minds officer if you have any questions relating to mental health and stress. Check out Active Minds on Facebook and the Active Minds website, and don't be afraid to take one of their compliment cards to continue encouraging healthy conversation!