Banners, signs, flyers and posters in various sizes with a pink elephant popped up across the campus starting this past Monday, October 21 which marked the first day of the Mental Health & Wellness Week 2013. The goal is to start conversations about mental health issues that directly or indirectly affect students such as suicide, depression, and eating disorders, says Kirsty Nicole Bocado, the Public Relations Officer for Active Minds Penn State Chapter, the organization behind the suicide and depression panel discussion.
Two years ago, it was not as action-packed as this year’s, according to UPUA Student Life Committee Chair, Caleb Fernandez. “[when it was just Active Minds] it didn’t get too much attention but they had obviously good intentions. Last year, UPUA teamed up with Active Minds and CAPS…and again there wasn’t much attention. They made it a little bigger, they got some shirts and they put on some events,” in an attempt to educate students about mental health but with lukewarm success, Fernandez says.
This year, several organizations including IFC, Human Health Development Honor Society, PRSSA, LGBTA Resource Center and Student Nutrition Association joined Active Minds and UPUA’s effort. Mental health issues are “touchy” subjects to talk about, Fernandez says.
Elephant in the room
Both Bocado and Marilee Fritsch, the community service chair of Student Nutrition Association pointed out that there is still a strong sense of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental health issues. If someone is suffering from a mental illness, they “don’t want to acknowledge it,” fear that “people are going to think they are crazy,” or believe only certain types of people can be affected by a mental illness, Fritsch said. “It’s really not like that. There is a big continuum of mental illness,” she said. But those are the exact stigmas they are trying to break. “Not everyone has mental illness but everyone has mental health,” Bocado said.
“It’s astonishing for people, that when they walk by the [HUB] tables and we tell them that 13 people have committed suicides since 2010 in the Penn State community, and that’s something that’s been kept on the down-low. And people don’t want to know about it, people don’t want to talk about it,” Fernandez says. “But that’s something we have to tell people, we have to show people.”
Frisch says the event hosts are working hard to engage students in the dialogue on mental health with fun, light-hearted approaches: freebies, tips, a panel discussion, balloon art and guest speakers. “The conversation doesn’t have to be heavy and depressing. It’s for getting people to talk,” she says.
Bocado says, “It’s like a pink elephant in the room. No one is going to talk about it. Why not talk about it?”
The bottom line is, it’s okay to seek help and to communicate to others that you are there for them, and assist them in seeking help if they know people who suffer from mental illnesses.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to them personally. First and foremost, don’t go to them like attacking them. Show that you’re concerned and show that you want to help them,” Bocado, who previously suffered from severe OCD and anxiety, says. “Even just asking, ‘how was your day?’ ‘hey, is something wrong?’ ‘you look sad, what’s going on?’, these things can help.”