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Observer Editorial: Keep mental illness in mind

| Friday, October 7, 2016

Every day for the past week, the library has been illuminated in green, spurring confused queries as to the color’s significance among students. Speculation has been varied, with theories ranging from highlighting the University’s sustainability efforts to honoring the athletic program, but in reality, the lights commemorate Irish State of MiND week — a week aimed at raising awareness of and promoting discussion surrounding mental illness.

The prevalence of mental illness is nothing to shrug at. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adult Americans experiences a mental illness. In terms of age, half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, and three-quarters begin by the age of 24.

In a high-stress academic environment like Notre Dame, students face the combined loads of extracurricular activities, school work, social plans and other major life decisions. This makes us especially vulnerable to mental illnesses. Now is a critical time to work together to minimize the negative effects of mental illnesses and to better support those who are affected.

Experiencing a mental illness can be as debilitating as facing a physical illness. Physical illness usually presents visible symptoms. For example, the common cold and the annual flu season cause yearly autumn coughs and sniffles, while more severe diseases can leave you bedridden or cut into your daily schedule as you receive treatment.

Similarly, common mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, can drain one’s energy before the day begins or paralyze those affected without a moment’s notice. Physical illness and mental illness are two sides of the same coin of wellness — and mental illness is the one we need to start paying more attention to.

The National Institute of Health reports that “depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease,” while 18.1 percent of American adults live with at least one type of anxiety disorder. Just like physical illnesses, the effects of a mental illness can result in compounding symptoms or even in death.

Mental illness, while not directly visible most of the time, has tangible physical effects, and to say otherwise would be to discredit those who suffer each day.

As a campus community, we have already taken steps to ensure that those afflicted are able to get the help they need. In the past, The Observer has reported on Design for America’s Elephant in the Room app, an online forum where students can discuss their mental health issues. During the student government election last year, the Alberigi-Cha campaign raised awareness by specifically targeting issues of mental health. The renovations at the McDonald Center for Student Well-being provide students with a relaxing and safe environment to control personal levels of stress and anxiety. Saint Mary’s offers counseling services through the Health and Counseling Center, as well as pastoral counseling through Campus Ministry at any time during the week.

The University Counseling Center has reported a 35 percent increase in visits since 2009. As a community, we are certainly becoming more aware of mental illnesses and the steps necessary to treat them. But the statistics show more than half of adults aren’t getting the help they need. So what can we do?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 60 percent of adults with a mental illness didn’t receive mental health services in the previous year. One driver behind this astonishingly high statistic is the stigma associated with mental illness. It’s simply a fact that our culture places a big emphasis on being independent, free and confident in the face of adversity. However, that attitude toes a fine line that too often falls into the category of unhealthy hubris.

Knowing when and where to find and accept help is a step in the right direction. By being able to monitor yourself and know your resources, you can better help yourself and allow others to support you.

There are also steps we can take to support those who are considering seeking help.

Jokes about being depressed or having a panic attack minimize the experiences of someone who is actually affected by depression or anxiety. Hearing legitimate terms used as a punch line can dissuade people from seeking help — and since mental illness is very strongly connected to emotions and feelings, words can be everything.

We at The Observer don’t look to be the word police, but instead hope to strengthen our community through greater understanding, patience and sensitivity. We challenge you after this year’s Irish State of MiND week to seek to understand the perspectives of those with mental illness, to understand its prevalence and to lend a helping hand to those who struggle.

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