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Student government pushes for ‘culture change’ on mental illness

| Friday, December 11, 2015

The department of health and wellness spent its inaugural semester working to find ways to foster conversations about mental health issues on campus, department director sophomore Rohit Fonseca said.

Student body president Bryan Ricketts and vice president Nidia Ruelas introduced the idea of adding the department of health and wellness last February as part of their campaign platform. Over the course of the semester, their administration has implemented and contributed to a variety of initiatives to raise awareness about mental health issues at Notre Dame.

Sophomore Neil Lewis speaks at “In Our Own Words” in the  LaFortune Student Center Ballroom on Oct. 6. Chris Collins | The Observer

Sophomore Neil Lewis speaks at “In Our Own Words” in the
LaFortune Student Center Ballroom on Oct. 6.

Fonseca said one of the goals of the department of health and wellness is to inform students about mental health through programs such as Irish State of Mind Week and the “Just Ask” campaign.

Irish State of Mind Week, hosted by student government in collaboration with Notre Dame’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-ND), recognized National Mental Illness Awareness Week. Events throughout the week were designed to spark conversations across campus about mental health.

Student government launched the “Just Ask” campaign, an ACC-wide campaign focused on raising mental health awareness, in an video emailed to students on Oct. 11.

Fonseca said the campaign was one of the results of the ACC Student Leadership Conference hosted at Notre Dame last year.

“The ‘Just Ask’ campaign encourages people — if you notice something’s wrong with your friend, or if you know someone’s having a bad day — to just ask them what’s wrong,” he said. “We also include information in there about the counseling center and resources that are available on campus.”

A video about the campaign will be shown in each Moreau First-Year Experience course, Fonseca said.

“It’s really to help get the message out to people,” he said. “We know we’ll be reaching one-fourth of the student body when all the freshmen see the video.”

Ricketts and Ruelas said student engagement in discussions about mental health topics is an area in need of improvement.

“Where I would say sexual assault has been more of a ‘home run’ issue with lots of student engagement, we’re still in the education phase with mental health and mental illness,” Ricketts said. “How to bring that education to a broader setting is something we’re still working on.”

As student government continues to encourage conversations about mental health, Fonseca said he hopes the topic will gain the same levels of attention sexual assault has received.

“Beforehand, we didn’t feel that there was a real conversation about [sexual assault], but now, due to recent events and initiatives that student government has done, in addition to the emails sent out and prayer services, it’s really become a productive conversation on campus that people are passionate about,” he said. “We’d like to have the same thing happen for mental health.”

Ricketts and Ruelas student government plans to address mental health issues in a similar way to conversations around sexual assault at Notre Dame.

“I think that, like sexual assault, the bigger area to work on in regards to mental health is culture change,” Ruelas said. “That’s going to take a while.”

In addition to health and wellness initiatives, Ricketts and Ruelas compiled student government’s research and recommendations on mental health at Notre Dame in a memo presented to the Board of Trustees this fall. Since the memo, two colleges started forming training programs to better educate their faculty about mental health and how to address it in the classroom, Ricketts said.

“We saw some immediate impacts, but we also realize that with some of the work we did, we’re just planting seeds,” he said. “There’s not the institutional readiness yet to do all these things. … I think these things will happen. But in the meantime, we’ve only been able to plant the seed.

“That’s one of the harder things about this position. You leave some things behind with the hope that this is going to grow.”

The department of health and wellness plans to start a poster campaign next semester to continue to raise awareness about mental health, Fonseca said. The department is also working with other University organizations to inform students about mental health and the resources available on campus, such as the new McDonald Center for Student Well-Being (McWell Center).

“We’ve been collaborating and building a relationship with the McWell Center, in addition to Campus Ministry and the department of residence life, and we’re trying to put together a holistic health and wellness blog where people could go for all their health and wellness questions,” he said.

Fonseca said the department hopes to launch the blog early next semester.

The next step of their administration’s work on mental health is to turn the awareness into action, Ricketts said.

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re tying our conversations ‘Just Ask’ and mental health into the broader understanding of bystander intervention that’s happening in Moreau and that’s happening ‘It’s On Us,’” Ricketts said. “… That’s the next step of it — really engaging individuals.”

Fonseca said the health and wellness department promotes the University’s mission with its focus on the mind.

“Obviously, you come to Notre Dame for an education,” he said. “… We want to get to the place where [mental health is] important to students, and it’s something they value as much as GPAs, or resumes, or other things that people put the premium on here.”

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About Katie Galioto

Katie, the Observer's current Managing Editor, is a senior majoring in political science, with minors in Business Economics and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She's a former Walsh Hall resident who now lives off campus and hails from Chanhassen, Minnesota. Follow her on Twitter @katiegalioto.

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