We’ve got your back’
KAITLYN RABACH | Monday, October 7, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series discussing mental health at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s in recognition of national Mental Illness Awareness Week.
After recognizing mental illness as an issue on all three local Holy Cross college campuses, student government leaders decided to address the often stigmatized topic by dedicating this entire week to promoting dialogue about mental health.
The student leaders’ efforts coincide with national Mental Illness Awareness Week, which Congress established in 1990 in recognition of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ efforts to raise awareness of the issue.
Although Saint Mary’s titled its week “Support a Belle, Love a Belle” and Notre Dame titled its week “Irish State of Mind,” the campuses are collaborating on events with the central theme of “We’ve Got Your Back,” Saint Mary’s student body president Kat Sullivan said.
“We initially were going to call [the week] ‘You Are Not Alone’ because this is a community issue and something that we can work with as a tri-campus community, but we decided to go with ‘We’ve Got Your Back’ because we thought it really embodies the mission of all three colleges. … We are part of the Order of the Holy Cross community, and I think it is important for us to be there to support our community, no matter what we are facing.”
Lisa Anderson, president of the St. Joseph County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and a community fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, said college students across the nation face mental health issues because members of this age group are prone to developing mental illnesses.
“The age for the onset of mental illness is typically from the teen years through the mid-20s, and stress is a huge contributor to either onset or making things worse in that paradigm,” Anderson said. “You are right at that age because of the development of things within your body that you have no control over.
“Those [things] are naturally happening during those years, and kids are under a lot of stress today. It is a bad combination, in one sense. If you have a vulnerability to some kind of mental illness, the chances of it happening in those years is pretty likely.”
Sarah Senseman, Notre Dame student government director of constituent services, said Saint Mary’s sponsorship of Support a Belle, Love a Belle for the last two years served as inspiration for Irish State of Mind, but that inspiration was accompanied by a demand from the Notre Dame student body.
“Support a Belle, Love a Belle gave us the foundation for the week, but then feedback from the students allowed us to add a focus,” Senseman said. “Some students have given us feedback that they are not aware of the resources for mental health on campus. … We want to encourage students to use the campus’ resources more, to talk to each other more and to have a more positive outlook on the resources, which we have very many of.”
Stephanie Klotter, Notre Dame student government director of residence life, said the collaborative group made sure events for the week were positive and showed hopeful ways in which people dealing with mental illness could combat the disease.
“We thought it was important to show that mental health week is not just a bunch of events talking about depression, schizophrenia and anorexia,” Klotter said. “That would not be uplifting, nor would it be the message we want to send. We wanted to show that there are positive ways to deal with all of those issues – a way to overcome and show that things happen and there is a way to get past it and deal with mental illness in a happy and positive way.”
With this goal in mind, the week’s events will appeal to as many people on campus as possible, Notre Dame student body vice president Nancy Joyce said.
“You have the panel for people who want to hear about the issue from their friends’ perspectives, as well as from the perspectives of administrators on campus,” Joyce said. “Then we have a speaker to talk more broadly about mental health for people interested in the issue in that way. Other events, like yoga on the quad, give people yet another opportunity to engage with the issue and to see what resources are available to them.
“I think a lot of times, for people who are struggling with issues of mental health, the hardest part is engaging for the first time, so I think the more opportunities there are, then the more likely people who need help or who could use some support will find that somewhere in this six or seven events planned for the week.”
Since this week is a student-run initiative, Anderson said she expects the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s community to receive it well.
“Having the students start this dialogue on campus is the best way to get the message across,” she said. “I am a middle-aged mother. I can talk about the issue all I want. I am someone else. I am not them. I am not you. It is someone that is your own age, that is living in the same worldview, that is going to be able to relay this message. It will be more readily received from someone that is in your own circumstance.”
Anderson said sponsoring events like this allows people to understand mental illness better as a disease.
“Statistics say one out of every four American families either have either a relative or a friend who has some form of mental illness,” she said. “We tend to think of mental illness, unfortunately, as someone who has gone into Sandy Hook [School in Newtown, Conn.] and who has shot a bunch of people.”
But mental illnesses are medical diseases, Anderson said, and many students at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s face some sort of mental health issue.
“If people can understand that probably when you are walking around campus on any given day, one out of the four people you pass may have some form of mental illness, we can become more sensitive to all of our fellow human beings dealing with a mental illness,” Anderson said. “That way, we can improve our communication skills with people, instead of shunning people out.”
This week is about improving communication about mental health issues and ensuring that all students feel welcome in our campus communities, Joyce said.
“People are always there for each other on these campuses,” she said. “We are very family-oriented. … [It’s a] ‘You have been there for me, so I am going to be there for you’ kind of an idea.
“I don’t know if that exists on every college campus, but since it exists here at Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross, then I think it is really important that we capitalize on that sense of community to help people that are struggling with mental health issues.”
Contact Kaitlyn Rabach at firstname.lastname@example.org