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Focus on control

| Monday, February 8, 2016

This Wednesday, Notre Dame will have its election for next year’s student body president and vice president. Preserving students’ mental health is an important issue on campus that I hope takes a front seat in this year’s election. However, I struggle with the general platform goal of “ending the stigma.” It’s difficult for me to understand the possibility of implementing something like ending social stigma into a plan that can be accomplished in an academic year.

Why is this? Stigma against mental illness is a pervasive issue that goes beyond the borders of Notre Dame. I don’t think the goal should be to end the stigma. This is only feasible if we can end the stigma universally. I think the goal ought to be to preserve a safe space on campus and heighten awareness of mental illness treatment and prevalence.

Bear with me here. I know when the phrase “safe space” gets thrown around, eyes start rolling and sarcasm begins. However, I think that for mental health, a safe space is critical. Instead of focusing on the travesty of stigma, we should focus on sustaining an environment of encouragement and growth. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves — to be successful academically, to be physically fit and to be liked by our peers. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that mental illness is a problem at Notre Dame. I think everyone carries some sort of baggage. When I had depression, it felt like I was lugging it around with me, and I always thought it was conspicuous. I thought everyone could see the weight, and I felt guilty whenever I shared some of the burden with another person. I think this guilt is what holds people back from telling their friends and family that they’re struggling. An environment that works to alleviate this guilt is one we should cultivate at Notre Dame, and this can only be done through awareness that mental illness exists here.

“Ending the stigma on campus” is a sweeping statement that sounds impressive but does little. It just isn’t feasible to try and change everyone’s mindset on an issue that is influenced by family, culture and experience, especially when the problem is beyond Notre Dame itself. What we can control is how we treat each other, and how we support our friends. What we can control is to move away from competition and towards collaboration and community. What we can control is to allow ourselves to take some pressure off and let go of the weight we carry. We may not be able to control the stigma. I hate to admit that. However, it’s also important to be realistic. Awareness of the prevalence of mental illness on campus is more important because we can control how kind we are to one another. We can control how we act with our friends. This year, let’s focus on what we can control.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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