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Seeing the mental health reality

Peter Quaranto | Monday, February 16, 2004

The Apocalypse is upon us here at Notre Dame. As the world turns with the local bishop combating genitalia monologues, the Campus Crusaders condemning our University’s attempts at gay tolerance, the basketball team finally winning and student government elections actually intriguing, our world has to be at an end. Not to mention Alex Rodriguez ending up in a Yankees uniform, more attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq than any month since October and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” And what of this turmoil breaking loose in Haiti? These days, I find myself yearning for a baseball card collection and simple boyish ignorance.While it is good that so many issues are being debated, society is more aware and interesting things exist to get us through the South Bend winter, I fear that one very important discussion gets lost in the mix. That discussion about mental health issues, which are more prevalent on college campuses than ever thought before, is one from which we cannot shy away.According to studies of the American College Health Association, 39 percent of college students reported feeling so depressed that is was difficult to function during the past year. 9 percent admitted to having contemplated suicide and a 1.5 percent had attempted suicide. According to the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) suicide was the second-leading cause of death for college students.These are certainly not trivial problems. Applying these studies to the Notre Dame populace would suggest that 3,120 students have been depressed at some point during the past year, 720 have contemplated suicide and 120 students have attempted suicide. Do you know what your next-door neighbor is dealing with? Have you taken the time to ask your roommate how he or she is handling the stress? Many profess the unity and strength of the Notre Dame family, but I fear many too many of us are not aware of the mental health realities of Notre Dame.And suicide and general depression are only the beginning of a long list of mental health issues that plague students on college campuses across the country. According to the NMHA, more than 19 million American adults live with anxiety disorders. Five to ten million people have eating disorders, and many more are affected by the likes of OCD, ADD, ADHD, Schizophrenia, and more.The harshest reality of such discussion is that the picture is worsening as college students are rapidly having more complex mental health problems and developments. This is alarming, but perhaps not very surprising when one looks at the typical daily schedule of the American college student.Yet with that trend and while most people can relate to one or more of these issues, whether personally or through friends and family, it is shocking how little attention these issues, which affect us in so many real ways, receive.As our Notre Dame world turns with heated debates on affirmative action, Viewpoint showdowns on the legitimacy of the Vagina Monologues and even discussions of my own love, Election 2004, we must not forget the battles and injustices that all those who deal with mental health issues must face.We need to begin to ask questions about why so many college students deal with mental health problems. Is this a result of the many pressures and stresses that plague the lives of every student? College life is certainly not very conducive to healthiness, but does it go farther to tear at the mental and social threads that hold together the human person? Awareness will empower us to act more effectively in responding to these problems.How can we respond? The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, ran a 5-part series on mental health realities at their school. If The Observer were to run such a series in conjunction with the Psychology department, what would it find? Such is one idea, but the possibilities of dialogues, awareness campaigns and other actions are endless. The administration would do wisely to invest in such endeavors. For the many out there who are currently suffering from such mental health problems, know that you are not alone and that there is help. Mental health does not define who we are. The Health Services and Counseling Center on-campus offer many services and resources that are open to all of us and are very helpful.And for all who know of people suffering, the task that lies before us is to be friends, supporters and comforters in these lonely winter days. Community does not come from winning football championships, as some alumni would like to believe, or even from gaining national prestige, as the administration might want to believe; rather, community comes from people of different backgrounds and struggles coming together to share in one another’s pain and suffer together. Community comes when we open our eyes to one another and shed the barriers that keep us apart and keep so many alone.Today, let us commit ourselves to building such a community. The task is daunting, but in the end, I do believe it will save us all.

Peter Quaranto is a sophomore political science and international peace studies major. He wants to encourage the University to bring in Aung San Suu Kyi for this year’s Commencement Address if she can get out of Burmese prison. If not, the University should join the fight to free Burma. Contact him at pquarant@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not neccessarily those of The Observer.