Lately, you may have heard the term mental illness casually being tossed around in the media or during a conversation after a mass shooting has occurred as a way to label unfathomable behavior. Then, your mind immediately conjures up a version of who and what mental illness may look like based on this framework. Unfortunately, using mental illness in this context does more to stigmatize individuals who need and/or may seek help in order to improve their mental wellness.
The World Health Organization has defined mental wellness as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
Prevailing research states 1 in every 4 individuals suffer from a mental illness which equates to approximately 61.5 million people in the United States. Also, current research tells us that 50 percent of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14, and 75 percent of all chronic mental illness will manifest by age 24. This data provides valuable insight into when and where resources can be applied in order to help aid and create awareness at the onset of symptoms.
Although we are making strides in ensuring individuals have medical coverage to seek treatment for mental health disorders, many mental health providers are sorely underfunded, understaffed and unable to meet the demand for services without extreme wait times. Lack of access to short and long term mental health treatment can be deadly.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Reed Walter and Grace Ferguson both of whom are students at Ohio State University. Collaboratively with their greek houses and other campus partners, they launched a campus wide campaign to address the wait times students currently face in seeking mental health treatment. Buckeye students maybe hit with up to a six week waiting period in order to get access to treatment.
More funding for mental wellness centers is needed, but students can’t afford to wait until more money can be allocated for these services. Students need these services now, so Buckeyes are trying to raise the funds themselves. The University has verified that all funds donated to this campaign will go directly to their Wellness Center. To learn more about the Mental Health Matters campaign and make a donation, see my interview with two leaders of this student-led initiative below. The campaign will end May 7th.
SWH: What is Mental Health Matters, and how did it come about?
Reed: Two years ago, I was at a greek diversity retreat and watched this video about Jonah Mowry. This reminded me of my own struggles in grade school and college and those of my peers. It reminded me of the struggles that had continued on through college. Shortly after, the facilitators urged us to come up with a collaborative event for the Greek Community. For me, that was Mental Health Matters week. Mental Health Matters is a student led initiative with the mission of eliminating stigma around mental health and increasing access to mental health support. The first year, it was my chapter and a few other chapters. This year, I was able to lead from my position of president of Phi Gamma Delta to bring this initiative to the greater greek student body.
Grace: Mental Health Matters week started as a way to bring together students and members of the Sorority and Fraternity community, but soon grew to something much bigger. Personally, I too often see friends and other students struggling with mental health, unable to get the support they need. In addition, I personally have struggled with mental health throughout my life. I truly understand the need for greater mental health services on campus, and want to help my campus be a better place.
SWH: As students, why did you take it upon yourselves to help raise funds for the Student Wellness Center?
Reed: There is a spectrum of mental health care concerns ranging from “wellness” concerns to diagnosable concerns, to emergency concerns. In my quest to find a benefactor for fundraising for the week, I found that part of the problem in the mental health industry is that many of the issues students face could be addressed with less educated individuals than a full on counselor. The Student Wellness Center hopes to provide mental health support for students before their problems get to the point of needing full on services at Counseling and Consultation Services. SWC certifies students as peer to peer wellness coaches. These wellness coaches are often able to provide substantial mental health support to students and decrease the burden on CCS, ultimately lowering the wait times for students seeking help. The wellness coaching program at OSU is one of the first of its kind. over 90 institutions are on a list serve curated by our center to learn how to set up their own programs. We are privileged to have this new type of experimental support available and want to work to ensure that it is nurtured in these early stages.
SWH: What has been the reception of Mental Health Matters Week on campus, and how could Mental Health Matters help to inspire students on other college campuses?
Reed: I think that our movement is powerful because it has sparked literally thousands of conversations on campus about mental health. Beyond reducing stigma, through these conversations new ways of advocating for mental health and increasing resources for mental health have been able to be brought to the attention of administrators on campus. For example, today, I helped pass Resolution 49-R-XX through the undergraduate student government. This resolution formalizes the fact that the entire student body supports increasing mental health care support. These larger conversations are usually only had when their is a buzz around a topic on campus. The creativity of students is limitless, I think that every college would benefit from having a week focused on starting mental health conversations. I would be happy to talk to any students or administrators about setting up their own Mental Health Matters week.
Grace: Mental Health Matters has been incredibly well received on campus, especially amongst Greek Students at Ohio State. This student-led campaign should inspire other campuses to identify areas that need support and work to fix them. Student Organizations should know that they have an entire group of eager, willing students, ready to help. Here at Ohio State we have 5,000 members of the Greek Community willing to volunteer their time and energy. By focusing in on a unique group of students and inspiring them, driven student leaders can activate an entire campus.
SWH: How can individuals and organizations support this campaign?
Reed: Individuals and organizations can help by sharing the #MHM message as far and as wide as possible. Only through sparking conversations can we help to address the stigma that is so damaging to our lives. As I mentioned before, part of that message is increasing access to mental health. The Student Wellness Center is a leader in a new type of mental health support. By sharing the work they are doing and helping to financially support it, we are able to nurture this program and allow other institutions to learn from that growth. Reducing stigma and increasing accessibility to mental health support is the most important thing that anyone can do with regards to the mental health community. By being courageous and answering the call to action by standing up to stigma, we are chipping away at the barriers to seek help. This is how we see real change in the world happen, this is how we see suicide rates drop and this is how we see our loved ones heal. Throw those in need a reason to reach out to you by sharing this message.
Grace: A major part of Mental Health Matters Week is reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. By simply educating ourselves on mental health, the effects associated with mental illness, and viable treatment options, we can change the attitude regarding mental health on college campuses. Organizations should continue to push educational efforts and individuals should embrace these wholeheartedly.
SWH: How do you hope to improve outcomes for students needing mental health services at Ohio State University?
Grace: Primarily, I want to reduce the stigma regarding mental health. Students should be open to discussing their problems, and be able to find the help they deserve. I hope that Mental Health Matters week educates students on the existing services on campus and lets students know that help is available on campus. Second, I want to expand the available counseling services to eliminate wait times, expand locations and available times. The Student Wellness Center provides amazing services for students, but with additional funding, these services can be even better.
Deona Hooper, MSW is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Social Work Helper, and she has experience in nonprofit communications, tech development and social media consulting. Deona has a Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Management and Community Practice as well as a Certificate in Nonprofit Management both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.