Raising Awareness for Mental Illness Is Not an End in Itself

raisingawareness.jpgDealing with anxiety and depression in college is like treading water. Any moment could be the moment I finally lose track of my coursework or my extracurricular activities, which, for a guilt-ridden student in a high-pressure environment, might as well be the end of the world. There are many resources at my disposal as well as many people willing to offer support, but their help is very much a one-time deal. The administrative climate regarding mental illness on campus is analogous to throwing a lifesaver in a drowning person’s general direction and then being frustrated when that person can’t muster the strength to swim to it. “You went to therapy once. You should be better by now” is the implicit attitude that informs how college campuses deal with students’ ever-worsening mental health.

On the surface, however, this does not seem to be the case. For instance, the university I attend holds a “Mental Health Awareness Week” or some variation of that once per semester. During the week, there are various activities on campus, including free yoga (because yoga is the unspoken cure-all for mental health issues), nebulous ways to “fight the stigma,” and mental health screenings that come with free cookies and pizza. Don’t get me wrong. I think raising awareness for mental health issues is important, but if the administrators remain virtually unfazed by students’ attempts to do this, all we have left are free cookies and yoga.

Instances such as the aforementioned one have led me to believe that college campuses deal with mental health entirely retroactively. If there is a suicide or some other tragedy on campus, rest assured the administrators will iterate and reiterate the importance of seeking help and the various locations where help is available to students, but otherwise, we are basically on our own. These tragedies arise and remain in the campus’ consciousness momentarily, but it is never long enough for the college to do some serious soul-searching and introspection regarding its level of culpability for them.

College has a way of exacerbating stress. The high-pressure environment of frenzied academic and extracurricular achievement leads students to develop a “now-or-never” attitude in regards to fulfilling their long-term aspirations. On top of that, these aspirations are being demeaned by older generations if they are not contributing to the areas of scientific and technological innovation. This, coupled with the intense social isolation that pressure to achieve entails, is a recipe for the onset of a mental health issue. If a student comes to college with preexisting mental health issues, well, this environment is not a surefire path to healing by any metric. Prospective college students hear the refrain “best four years of your life” over and over again. When things don’t measure up to those expectations, the students shoulder the blame. The students are the ones “doing college wrong.” The colleges are somehow able to use students as scapegoats as they continue fostering environments that are toxic to our mental health.

Colleges need to be dealing with mental health in a way that doesn’t stop at simply raising awareness. College students are aware of mental health issues. In fact, we have them in staggering numbers. When students attempt to raise awareness for mental illness, we are not concerned that our peers will be the ones ignoring it and perpetuating the stigma. “Mental Health Awareness Week” and its equivalents are pleas to administrators to be proactive in helping students deal with our mental health more than anything. We don’t need anymore funding for free yoga or cookies. We just need administrators to listen.

The post was originally published on the Huffington Post website.

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