Reducing the social stigma of mental illness

By The Beacon | September 30, 2010 9:00pm

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On Oct. 7, the UP Health Center will offer free mental health screenings during Mental Health Awareness Week

By Caitlin Yilek, Staff Writer yilek12@up.edu

Senior Emily DeWolfe was diagnosed with depression when she was a junior in high school.

"I thought feeling pessimistic all of the time was normal," DeWolfe said. "It didn't occur to me that I could actually have depression. I have always had some degree of anxiety – it runs in my family, but depression was not very common."

DeWolfe is not alone in her battle against depression.

However, because mental illnesses hold a social stigma, it is difficult for many to reach out for assistance in their struggle.

This year, UP is devoting a week to banish the stigma against mental illnesses by raising awareness and educating students about depression and anxiety.

Mental Illness Awareness Week takes place Oct. 3 – 9. Thursday, Oct. 6 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Student Health Center will host a table in The Commons with information regarding mental illnesses on college campuses.

National Depression Screening Day is Thursday, Oct. 7. There will be free and confidential screenings for depression and anxiety in the Student Health Center from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.. There is no appointment needed for these screenings.

"Knowledge decreases ignorance, which hopefully decreases the stigma. The stigma associated with mental illness is a big barrier to treatment," Kelly Petrino, the UP Health Center psychologist, said.

"I think it is very important for students to be aware of mental illnesses because chances are very high that they have friends and/or family members who experience mental illness," she said.

According to Petrino, the age of college students is the age at which mental illness symptoms may first appear or develop.

"If someone thinks they suffer from anxiety, depression or another mental illness I would encourage them to seek professional support and assistance," Petrino said.

A change in behavior is an indication that someone may be experiencing depression, anxiety or another mental illness.

Such changes in behavior include: sleeping all the time or not at all; not doing homework or attending class when this was not previously the case; and isolating oneself away from others. A change in substance abuse is also a primary sign of mental illness.

DeWolfe experienced days where she was overwhelmingly sad for no apparent reason.

"I would feel very negative about my surroundings to the point where all I wanted to do was cry," DeWolfe said. "This wasn't every day, but it was more than usual. But medication allows me to have many more good days than bad."

DeWolfe wants other students suffering from a mental illness to know that they are not alone.

"Get help and don't be embarrassed or ashamed about getting help!" DeWolfe said. "Depression and anxiety are so common; you're not the only one. I have many friends who suffer from the same problems I do."

Though DeWolfe has never experienced suicidal thoughts, others cannot say the same. According to Petrino, there are approximately 1,100 deaths by suicide each year among college-aged students. In addition, suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students. Before 2009, UP did not have a student suicide in over 15 years.

The warning signs for suicide include those for depression, along with suicide threats or comments, dramatic mood changes, no sense of purpose or reason to live, recklessness and loss of contact with reality.

The Student Health Center is available to assist students who are affected in any way by mental illnesses.

"A combination of therapy and medication is the best treatment for depression," Petrino said, "though many will choose not to seek help."

For students not ready to reach out to professionals, Petrino recommends that they share their experience with someone they trust. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and getting adequate sleep may also be helpful.

DeWolfe says that regular exercise helps improve her mood when she is in a slump.

"Exercise can be anything from walking or running to yoga," DeWolfe said. "I find yoga, especially hot yoga, to be so relaxing when I'm having a bad day. It's great to get all of those negative thoughts out."

Petrino suggests that students who know someone with a mental illness should be supportive, compassionate and understanding, while encouraging them to seek help from a professional.

"Don't promise confidentiality (and remember to) take care of yourselves," Petrino said. "It can be difficult and exhausting helping others through difficult times."


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