Students work to end stigma surrounding mental illness
Image courtesy of NAMI on Campus WWU.
When students at Western get sick, the path to regaining health may seem fairly straightforward. A quick visit to the Student Health Center, a doctor’s note to excuse any absences and plenty of rest are all accepted and encouraged by campus administration and faculty alike.
But when it comes to caring for mental health, the stigma surrounding mental illness can be a challenging barrier for students wanting to seek academic and emotional support.
In the United States, one in five adults experiences a mental illness in a given year, and 75 percent of mental health conditions develop by age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Psychologists and medical professionals say early intervention and effective treatment can offer substantial long-term benefits for those living with mental health conditions, according to NAMI.
But seeking help early can often be difficult for some students at Western, Shari Robinson, director of Western’s Counseling Center, said over email.
“There needs to be more diversity on the [counseling center] staff. [It] would help our students of color, LGBTQ+ and international students feel more comfortable accessing the services because they’d see counselors that reflects their ethnic or sexual identity.”
Shari Robinson, director of Western’s Counseling Center
Robinson attributed this to longer-than-average wait times to be seen by a member of the counseling staff.
“It may take up to two weeks before a student can get in for their initial assessment,” Robinson said.
Issues of diversity are also contributing factors to students choosing to suffer in silence, she said.
“There needs to be more diversity on the [counseling center] staff,” Robinson said. “[It] would help our students of color, LGBTQ+ and international students feel more comfortable accessing the services because they’d see counselors that reflects their ethnic or sexual identity.”
Robinson continued by suggesting ways that Western could improve as a university in student outreach and staff provision of mental health care.
“If the [center] was adequately staffed with 14 full-time counselors, we could see most students within five days and the average number of sessions could increase to six,” Robinson said. “Western is a difficult university to recruit and retain faculty and staff of color. This is a systemic issue that has to be addressed on an institutional level.”
Previous articles published by The Western Front have shown Western’s Counseling Center does not meet the recommended student-to-clinical staff ratio, making it difficult for students to be seen quickly or receive longer-term care.
While tackling the stigma surrounding mental illness and improving care on an institutional level may seem like an overwhelming task, members of the Western community have emphasized that smaller, individual changes can also be influential in shifting the cultural narrative.
NAMI on Campus WWU, a student group that raises awareness about mental illness, hosted a panel called “Ending The Stigma” in the Viking Union on Wednesday, Jan. 31.
The talk aimed to break down harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness. Speakers consisted of people living with mental illness, mental health professionals, psychologists and individuals with family members who have mental health conditions.
Western student and panelist Alyssa Sisemore discussed addressing the stigma she sees perpetuated by fellow students.
“You would never make a joke about cancer to someone who has cancer. We don’t make jokes about physical illnesses, so why is it okay to make a joke about someone with a mental illness?” Sisemore said. “You know it’s not funny, but a lot of people haven’t learned that it’s not okay to make jokes about people with mental illnesses.”
She emphasized the importance of peer-to-peer education in combating stigma and prejudice toward mental health conditions.
“It may take up to two weeks before a student can get in for their initial assessment.”
Shari Robinson, director of Western’s Counseling Center
“The person that said something most likely, has no idea they’re being hurtful, because they have no idea how it feels. And they won’t know unless you tell them, ‘Hey, that’s really not okay’ or ‘That’s not funny,’” Sisemore said.
Among the speakers was Bellingham community member and NAMI affiliate Sarah Bond-Yancey, who spoke about their experience living with dissociative identity disorder (DID).
Bond-Yancey shared the frustration they felt as a result of dealing with frequent misconceptions and inaccurate media representations of their disorder.
“I have never seen a depiction of collaborative DID that has been an accurate representation of my experience,” Bond-Yancey said. “For example, I need a counselor and I can’t find one because no one will take people with DID because they think it’s too difficult.”
Western assistant psychology professor and speaker Aaron Smith shared ways in which individuals can work to change their personal perceptions of mental health, along with strategies to navigate difficult stages in life.
“We often pathologize very normal things. Don’t be afraid to share your struggle with existence,” Smith said. “Know that relationships can be incredibly powerful in the healing process.”
The panel discussion ended with a reminder to audience members of the various campus resources and organizations available for those with mental illness.
NAMI on Campus WWU partners with NAMI Whatcom County, the local chapter of the national organization.
“It’s a club that is looking out for people who have family members or friends or themselves have mental illness, and providing resources as well as education,” said Brogan Glover-Smith, the education coordinator for Western’s NAMI On Campus.
“You would never make a joke about cancer to someone who has cancer. We don’t make jokes about physical illnesses, so why is it okay to make a joke about someone with a mental illness?”
Alyssa Sisemore, Western student
Glover-Smith said that the greatest challenge the club faces is working to reverse mental health stigma, and how best to educate and inform the Western community about the importance of respecting those with mental health conditions.
“Just the language we use, like talking about the weather and saying ‘it’s bipolar out today,’ or ‘she’s crazy’ or ‘my teacher’s psychotic,’ those words, as small as they seem, are such a big part that plays into the stigma on mental illness,” Glover-Smith said.
The NAMI On Campus club meets from 5-6 p.m. on Wednesdays in Miller Hall 114 and is open to all students. It also offers a support group for students and community members living with mental illness that meets the second Tuesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in Viking Union 714.
NAMI on Campus WWU — firstname.lastname@example.org
NAMI Whatcom County — 360-671-4950
CASAS — 360-650-3700
Counseling Center — 360-650-3164
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 1-800-273-8255