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Despite better understanding of mental illness’s causes, stigma continues to linger

Active Minds works to promote mental health awareness on campus and beyond

Published: Friday, October 1, 2010

Updated: Friday, October 1, 2010 07:10

health services mental illness

Iane Florsheim / Tufts Daily

Health Service provides mental health counseling but students often prefer confiding in their peers.

Most college students will readily admit to being stressed out. A smaller percentage might say they get anxious. Not quite as many will confess to suffering from depression, and even fewer will seek help.

Often, the more severe a mental health problem is, the less willing the victim is to talk about it openly due to one simple factor: stigma.

"Many people erroneously think that developing a [mental health] problem is a sign of weakness or failure but this is simply not the case," Marilyn Downs, director of outreach at Counseling and Mental Health Service, said. "Mental health problems are among the most common health conditions and can affect anyone."

According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, although more people understand the biological factors behind mental illness, the stigma connected with it has failed to drop proportionally.

"Public stigma associated with mental health problems has generally decreased in the last 10 years," Downs said. "I think that misinformation is one of the biggest reasons that stigma persists."

Another possible reason for the persistence of stigmatization is the personal nature of mental illness.

"It's very difficult to want to talk about mental health," sophomore Nicholas Marshall, a member of the Tufts chapter of Active Minds, said. Active Minds is a national organization dedicated to educating college campuses about mental health. "It's a very awkward thing to try and talk about. It's just something that doesn't come up in everyday conversation. It's a lot easier to talk about the biological aspect of something than the personal."

It is for this reason that Active Minds is actively seeking to dispel the stigma associated with mental health, but the organization is more or less alone in its pursuit, senior Nerissa Durchin, co−president of Tufts's Active Minds chapter, said.

"Active Minds is the only organization that utilizes the student voice to change the conversation about mental health on college campuses," she said. "College students are in the perfect position to affect change in a grassroots way."

Downs agreed that college students are in a favorable position and should make an effort to change the way in which their peers conceptualize mental illness.

"College students have much more accepting attitudes about mental health problems than many people think, especially at Tufts," she said.

Even those who are willing to open up about their problems will not open up to everyone, Marshall said. He explained that people suffering from mental issues will often approach a friend or another student for help over a professional.

"Someone who may have an issue will most likely go to their friends and peers than a mental health counselor," he said. "They may be more honest with their peers. It's a lot easier to have that conversation peer−to−peer, with people on equal levels. [Active Minds] has a direct connection with the student body."

Durchin stressed that reducing stigma is not merely a matter of comfort but one of safety.

"Feeling stigmatized could potentially discourage someone with a mental illness from getting help because they don't want to be labeled or judged," she said.

Furthermore, the effects of stigmatization are not benign.

"The consequences could be as severe as someone committing suicide or as minimal as someone who feels constantly, constantly alone and not … able to talk about it," Marshall said. This is where Active Minds sees the possibility of making a contribution.

"One of the goals in founding the Active Minds chapter is to try and reduce the back−and−forth time between starting to need help and actually getting help," senior Patricia Pop, founder of Active Minds at Tufts, said. "The health education community has slowly been trying to turn away from the concept of ‘stigma.' Using the term can almost perpetuate stigma or elicit pitying."

Research has shown that "contact theory" — exposure to those who have or have had mental health difficulties — is the best way to reduce stigma, Pop said.

"It becomes much easier to relate and humanize someone upon meeting them," Pop said. "I wouldn't expect anyone at Tufts to really tell me that they truly hate and actively avoid people struggling with mental health. It's a lot more subtle than that so the approach needs more finesse."

Above all, the members of Active Minds believe that the most effective way to eliminate stigma is to open up conversation. To spread their philosophy, the group on Oct. 4 — Active Minds−led National Day Without Stigma — will have tables set up in the Mayer Campus Center and both dining halls to provide students with resources and information about mental health.

"If we don't talk about the potential issues, the more acute problems may come out of it," Marshall said. "We don't want those people to feel alone or to not be able to know what they can do to get help, for either themselves or their friends."

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