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Nov 19 2012

Why Northwestern Needs an Orientation Program on Mental Health

Note: This post is about stuff going on at my school, Northwestern University. But it’s relevant for anyone who cares about mental health and student activism.

[Content note: depression and suicide]

A little over three years ago, I arrived at Northwestern as a freshman completely unprepared for what was about to happen.

I don’t mean the difficult academics, the new social structure, or the challenges of living away from my parents, although those certainly had a learning curve.

What I mean is the intense stress I suddenly had to deal with, the complete lack of a support system, and the shame and stigma of admitting “weakness” or “failure.”

As soon as I got to campus, I went through a series of mandatory orientation programs. There was one on sexual violence, one on drugs and alcohol, one on diversity, and a few others. There was no orientation program about mental health and illness, despite these statistics:

  • Over one year, 30% of college students reported being “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
  • 18% of students report having “seriously considered attempting suicide.”
  • Over one year, 44% of students reported that academics were “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”

This is serious stuff. And at Northwestern itself, a survey showed that a third of students had sought treatment for mental health, and that NU students report more distress and higher levels of depression than the national average for college students. (Unfortunately, I can’t cite this because I’m not sure if that document is public, but I assure you that I have seen it myself.)

It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say that college students are adults and should be able to deal on their own without being taught how to recognize the signs of a mental illness and seek help for it. But there are two issues here: 1) the stigma surrounding mental illness and the treatment thereof is still severe, and 2) many of us are taught to assume that this is somehow “normal.”

I fell into that trap my freshman year. Crying because I got B’s was “normal.” Wanting to overdose on pain meds to avoid my journalism homework was “normal.” Spending hours daydreaming about dropping out and going home was “normal.” Having no real friends at school after nearly a year was “normal.” If not statistically normal, at least “expected” or “deserved.”

We, as students, need people to tell us that none of this is “normal” and that living with this is not necessary.

So, Northwestern’s Associated Student Government is doing one of its periodic giving-away-free-money things to anyone who can come up with a good idea for how to use $10,000.

Last time, they offered $5,000, and the winning idea was installing WiFi on the Lakefill, which is a sort of park/pretty area where our campus meets Lake Michigan.

These are the sorts of projects that tend to win these grants. They’re “cool,” appealing to everyone because everyone will benefit from them. They don’t dredge up any uncomfortable issues. They don’t make any meaningful change.

This is why it’s especially significant that a group of Northwestern students has started a campaign to win the $10,000 for a more pressing cause: implementing an orientation program about mental health for freshmen.

A program like this is extremely important and would accomplish a variety of goals.

First of all, it would provide every single freshman with information about basic mental health and how to get help at Northwestern. It’s shocking to me how many people don’t even know what kinds of services our counseling center offers, or the fact the Women’s Center offers 52 free counseling sessions to people of all genders. Some students find this information out for themselves, but when you’re already struggling just to get through the day, it can seem like an insurmountable burden. Add to this the fact that most people don’t really know how to recognize when they (or a friend) needs help, and you’ll see a clear need for an orientation program like this one.

Second, it would show students that mental health is something we care about at Northwestern. Because, to be painfully honest, that was not an impression I got when I came here. Although Northwestern’s Active Minds chapter has really helped change the conversation over the past year or so, mental health is still not something that people really talk about or take seriously. People brag about how little sleep they get. When I talked about having extreme anxiety because of my journalism assignments, people said I’d “get over it.”

Although things are starting to improve, our counseling center is severely understaffed and the staff-to-student ratio is worse here than at most other comparable schools. (Again, can’t cite because I’m not sure if those documents are public.) We have no peer counseling service, although I’ve been trying in vain to start one for a year and a half now. All of these things suggest to me that the leadership of this university cares more about building $220 million athletic complexes and $32 million visitors’ centers than about providing for the well-being of its students–who, by the way, are paying large sums of money and putting themselves under incredible stress for the privilege of attending this university.

And besides that, the academic pressure is intense and the competitive, pre-professional atmosphere at this school doesn’t really foster an environment in which mental health is a Big Deal. An orientation program like this would help set a different tone.

Third, it would provide students with an opportunity to start talking about mental health. That’s not something many of us did before college, really. Although I had taken psychology classes and was dimly aware of the existence of diagnoses like major depression and generalized anxiety, I’d never really gotten to talk about things like that with people before.

And remember that some students come from environments where evidence-based mental healthcare is not really accepted. In my family, we never ever discussed mental health at all, and I have friends here whose parents subscribed to pseudoscientific theories and treatments. Many of us, myself included, did not know a single person who was openly diagnosed and/or in treatment for a mental disorder until we got to college.

An orientation program that includes a substantial discussion component would allow students to actually start a dialogue about mental health before school has even started. Some might choose to reveal personal struggles, and their peers would learn that mental illnesses are really not that rare, and that people who have them are not that different from people who don’t. The potential that this has to dispel stigma and improve lives is immense.

If you are a Northwestern student, I urge you to visit this page to learn how to ask ASG to spend this money on an orientation program about mental health.

If not, please consider advocating for similar programs at your own school or alma mater.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Chris Wenger

    Excellent post. Good luck with your efforts to get a program in place. It’s surprising that Northwestern, with all of its resources, does not have better support and education around mental health issues. But I suspect it’s a subject most universities are not eager to engage, at least not too publicly, as that might seem like an admission that life on campus isn’t as wonderful as advertised.

  2. 2
    Nabonidus

    I’m a student at NU who had a many mental health problems while adjusting to college life, as a freshman and a sophomore. Just wanted to thank you for this post. I’m glad I’m not alone.

  3. 3
    arabalchemist

    Nabonidus, you are far from alone. I had to leave NU because my mental health had deteriorated so badly.

  4. 4
    Georgephina

    “[M]ental health is still not something that people really talk about or take seriously.”
    That’s been my experience during my time at Northwestern (and in general). The things I would do (repeatedly staying up for two nights in a row, avoiding work I loved, blowing off parties, eating like a weirdo) elicited that kind of semi-amused “Oh, you’re so crazy” response from my friends. Yes, ha ha, but I was *actually* crazy. I needed someone to tell me that my experiences were abnormal and somewhat changeable. Eventually I figured that out for myself, but for a few years there, I was mentally unequipped to do so. We need to improve literacy and vigilance among Northwestern students (/all humans) so they can watch the hell out for each other.

  5. 5
    Megan

    When I was a junior at Northwestern in 2005, a fellow rugby player committed suicide. From what I remember, one of the contributing factors was that he was harboring shame about his academic performance. It was a blow to the entire community, and of course brought the mental health issue to light. As institutional memory goes, it unfortunately seems to have fallen out of remembrance.
    I hope that your campaign works to further chip away the stigma associated with mental health concerns. It is a culture of silence and shame that unfortunately is not unique to college campuses.

  6. 6
    A.best

    Great post, I fell into a major depression among a list of other mental health issues as a freshman and sophomore at NU, and ultimately decided to finish at another school in my best interest. I also had a close friend who dealt with similar symptoms and suffered a mental brakdown that culminated in an attempt to take her own life. If there is anything that can be done to prevent this, a peer support group, orientation, whatever, I really wish the university would.

  7. 7
    Shaina Coogan

    As one of the students leading the charge on this initiative, I just wanted to thank Miriam for helping spread the word about this beyond Facebook.

    NU Active Minds can use all the support it can get. If you haven’t visited our page and looked over our instructions for how you can participate, I implore you to do so: https://www.facebook.com/events/290672101044440/

    We can’t do this without your help, and every voice counts!

  8. 8
    a.n.

    I definitely think that the dialogue on mental health on campus is lacking (despite initiatives by groups such as Active Minds) and that such a lack is dangerous. While we continue to open up the discussion on diversity, we should also prioritize discussing mental health. I myself struggled as a freshman and considered transferring. I know numerous students who have either taken a leave of absence or highly considered doing so for mental health. I have accompanied students to seek emergency medical treatment for their mental health. This all happens quietly on campus. However, this is a very real problem and it needs to be discussed thoroughly with arriving freshmen classes. Thanks for this piece and thanks Active Minds for starting this push.

  9. 9
    elyssa

    I think that it would be more beneficial to have an effective mental health program instead of raising money to provide an orientation program for a dysfunctional system. The program at Northwestern is seriously lacking structure and training and cannot even provide long term mental health care to those who need. Students are subjected to a multitude of surveys and must “tell their problems” or answer the question “why did you come in today” to multiple individuals, which can be physically and emotionally draining. There is no therapist/patient relationship because you end up talking to 5 people who refer you to yet another person to talk to. Personally, I was referred out of mental health clinic at Searle to another site on campus, but failed to follow up with the other clinic because of the sheer emotional exhaustion involved in the process. I would have to tell my issues to yet another person who would know just exactly how hard school was on me. Moral of the story: the mental health program at Northwestern is so severely lacking that going to the private sector might be the only option (although steep in price) that could really help students.

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