Challenging mental health stigma on Elon’s campus

By: Jennie Hook and Sara Russell

The alarm goes off and you hit the snooze button. Another day starts with the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and pressure. Some days are better than others but on bad days it can be too much to handle.

For senior Casey Morrison, this has been a part of her life since she was diagnosed with anxiety in high school and later bipolar II at her first year at Elon. The mental disorders have affected her everyday life. It has kept her from being active in class and away from organizations and events. Living with a mental disease is not easy.

“The bipolar is also unpredictable, sometimes involving a few months of depression or other negative moods,” Morrison said. “At other times switching between depression and mania in a matter of days or even hours.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar II is a form of mental illness and is defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but no full-blown manic or mixed episodes.

Unlike bipolar I disorder, or more commonly known as bipolar, people with bipolar II disorder never experience mood elevations that reach full-on mania.

“This has been an issue that comes and goes unpredictably, ranging in severity from slightly inconvenient to debilitating,” Morrison said.

Coming to college made Morrison’s condition worse. The stress from the school work added to Morrison’s anxiety and heightened her bipolar tendencies. Although it seems like the college environment caused more problems with her mental illness, it really taught and prepared her to deal with the level of stress and anxiety that college brings.

“Having social anxiety and being surrounded by people and interactions all the time probably escalated the problem,” Morrison said. “But it’s better because that meant I had to develop techniques to deal with a situation that challenged my condition.”

“I now believe I am much better equipped to deal with mental health challenges in the future,” Morrison said.

When Morrison is having an episode, or a moment of extreme anxiety, she now knows how to handle it in the best way to minimize the negative impact on herself and on others.

“I’ve developed a relationship with my condition itself that helps me cope with the challenges it brings,” Morrison said. “Instead of trying to get rid of the anxiety, I recognize it for what it is — fear — and instead of trying to fight it off, I try to comfort it.”

Now that Morrison has a better handle on her condition, it’s a matter of just dealing with it when it occurs.

Morrison’s best advice is to take care of your mental health as soon as the problem arises. She says to do whatever you know you need to do in order to keep yourself sane and happy, even if it doesn’t seem to directly play into your mental illness.

“It might feel like these issues can’t be your first priority with so much school, work, and extracurricular pressures,” Morrison said. “But if your mental health issues escalate, all of those commitments will suffer more if your mental health issues escalate than if you take an extra 20 minutes off to go for a run.”

Morrison says when dealing with a friend who struggles with a mental illness, it is important to know that it can make people act in ways they wouldn’t normally. She says they might unintentionally hurt or offend you, come off as exceptionally negative, or otherwise prove more difficult to be around than usual. Although they might seem to push you way, it is important to continually be there for them, Morrison said.

“Making an effort to check in with them every now and then will help them feel more comfortable talking to you when they need it,” Morrison said. “It will help them feel supported by simply knowing you cared enough to ask.”

Elon participates in an annual survey called the National College Health Assessment, which collects data about student health habits, behaviors, and perceptions. Actual statistics from Elon’s National College Health Assessment cannot be released without prior International Review Board approval. However, Jana Lynn Patterson, Associate Vice President for Student Life and Associate Dean of Student Health and Wellness, broke down some of the statistics.

“Around 10 to 15% of Elon’s population uses campus-counseling services annually,” Patterson said. “Compared to other schools like Elon, this percentage is pretty average.”

Patterson explains where Elon goes beyond the norm is in the number of students who described themselves as feeling anxious about academics and about life overall. Elon students also indicated on the survey that they are aware and concerned they’ve overextended themselves but do not want to take themselves to get help. Patterson believes that because Elon is so open about having mental illness discussions, Elon students are more in tune with their personal mental health needs.

Licensed Professional Counselor, Jennifer Brigman, works at Elon University at the Elon Student Counseling Services. The counseling services are located within the R.N. Ellington Health Center. There is no limit to how many times you can use the counseling services on campus and if the counselors there are unable to help you, they are able to direct you towards local resources.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Brigman cited Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a method to assess your personal mental health. The hierarchy is a psychological theory of a state called “self-actualization”, which Abraham Maslow defines “the desire for self-fulfillment”. By Maslow’s theory, to reach “self-actualization” you must meet all levels of the hierarchy: first, physiological needs like breathing, food and water; next, safety needs including security of body, of employment and of family; love and belonging needs such as friendship, family and intimacy; esteem needs like confidence, achievement and respect of others; and finally self-actualization where a person can be creative, solve problems and even lack prejudice.

Brigman says if someone uses this guide to meet their personal hierarchy of needs, that person will be actively maintaining their mental health. These needs can be met through a term called “self-care.” Brigman says to understand the concept of “self-care”, “image caring for someone you love.

“What are things you would do for that person? You might spend time with them. You might eat with them. You might snuggle with them. You might buy them a gift,” Brigman said. “All these things you can do for yourself.”

“Self-care” techniques can range from taking a walk, treating yourself to a nice meal or even taking a nap. One of Brigman’s personal favorites is meditation, which over time can retrain your brain to function more positively. Important things to keep in mind are that humans need sleep, food, and sunlight to function their best. Brigman says as long as it makes you happy without hurting yourself or someone else, it’s a productive way to keep yourself feeling your best. Drugs and alcohol are not necessarily productive methods of self-care.

Patterson says an important part of addressing mental health on college campuses is the negative stigma college students often perceive around having and treating a mental health issue. She says mental health should be treated in the same way physical health is treated.

“‘You need to work out so you can stay healthy’. Well there are certain things you need to do so your mental health stays healthy,” Patterson said. “When we begin to make a shift with folks that meditation is normal, that mindfulness is the same kind of practice with your mind and your emotions as getting on a treadmill is for your physical health.”

Active Minds is a national non-profit organization “that empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking.” The group joined campus in 2013 and their goal is to reshape campus culture “by providing information, leadership opportunities and advocacy training to the next generation”. They meet regularly on Wednesday evenings at 7:30 p.m. in Alamance 203.

Nicky Kratzer is a memeber of Active Minds and says they welcome all new members.

“People should understand that our club is a safe, nonjudgmental space where we are here to learn from others and motivated to change society’s view on mental health,” Kratzer said.

Elon’s branch of Active Minds frequently partners with another student organization known as Students Promoting Awareness, Responsibility, Knowledge, and Success, or SPARKS, to promote mental health wellness on college campuses. The events aim to break down the stigma of mental health on college campuses and encourage people to advocate for themselves along with their friends and loved ones.

This past week for mid-terms, the organization passed out gift bags that included things that would help you minimize stress. Lotion, dark chocolate, a small toy and tips on how to study were some of the things in the bags given to students.

Kaitlin Snapp is a senior leader with SPARKS and says we often forget the importance of taking care of our health. She says SPARKS keeps students informed that mental health is important and offers quick grab and go things that can help you deal the stress of college.

“Without SPARKS I don’t know if I would remember to take care of my mental health as well,” Snapp said.

A new group may soon be joining Active Minds and SPARKS in the mission to minimize mental health stigma. The DMAX Foundation is named for Dan Maxwell, an eighteen-year-old Radnor, Pennsylvania native, who took his own life after living with mental illness for eighteen months.

After Elon student Trent Stetler decided to take his own life in January 2015, his friend Ben Klieman wanted to bring resources from the DMAX Foundation to Elon’s campus. DMAX is still in the development process but Patterson says Elon could expect to see the group in operation within the coming months.

Patterson says after his death, Stetler’s friends and family were most upset about not recognizing signs that Stetler needed help. Patterson along with counselors like Brigman are working to provide information to Elon about signs to look for in yourself and in others that may signal it’s time to seek help.

Brigman says when a person starts to experience a dip in their mood, there are certain behaviors that could cause alarm. For example, if a typically good student stops attending classes and completing assignments, they could be going through what’s known as a depressive episode.

The National Institute of Mental Health says a depressive episode is period of falling into depression, persistent feelings of sadness that “interfere with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life.” Other signs of depressive episodes include long periods of sleeping, not eating and seeming disinterested in activities that typically make the person happy.

If you feel the need to approach a friend who seems to be struggling, Brigman says to use “I” language. For example, telling a friend “I’m worried about you” or “I want to help you feel better” is more helpful than telling a friend “You haven’t been yourself” or “You need help”. Using non-accusatory language can allow a person to be more receptive to your concerns.

Students aren’t the only ones on campus who need to do what Patterson calls a “check up from the neck up”. Faculty and staff also need to be aware of their mental health.

“There are faculty and staff out there that are in the same boat. They’re trying to be a good teacher, they’re trying to be an excellent committee staff person, they’re trying to work on their tenure packet,” Patterson said. “They’re working the candle at both ends too.”

Faculty and staff members have a number of mental health care options at Elon as well thanks to the Employee Assistance Program, which “is a program dedicated to enhancing an employees’ personal well being and increasing effective job performance and satisfaction,” according to Elon’s website. Along with the facilities on campus, Elon partners with Alamance Regional Hospital to provide additional therapy or counseling to faculty and staff members.

With the knowledge that 1,000 suicides occur on college campuses annually, the question arose — why aren’t schools screening for state of mental health as part of the student entrance health exams?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites 9,421 cases of Tuberculosis or TB in the United States in 2014. TB appears in the U.S. at a steadily declining rate. However, before a student can attend classes, they must be tested for Tuberculosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also cites suicide as the second most common cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24 with 4,878 deaths in 2013. Research from Emory University says 1,000 of these deaths occur on college campuses annually. Even with these statistics, the university does not require mental health screenings before beginning classes.

Medical Director of Elon’s Student Health Services is Dr. Ginette Archinal, M.D. She says screening for mental health would be inappropriate.

“Unlike physical issues, such as TB exposure and vaccine health, mental health issues come and go with time and circumstance,” Archinal said. “A screening done in July for an incoming first year is not relevant when that student encounters issues on campus 3 months later.”

“If we were to screen for mental health problems then the screen would need to be done on every student at least once a month for the entire time the student is on campus, which is not appropriate,” Archinal said.

However, there is an online mental health screening that students can use as a self-assessment of their mental health. Dr. Archinal does reach out to any student who indicates they have mental health concerns to inform them of the facilities and programs Elon has to offer should the student ever need help with their mental health.

Turning to the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life is another resource students have. There are several chaplains on campus that are available to talk.

Joel Harter is an associate chaplain for Protestant life, but like all of the chaplains, he’s welcome to speak with anyone who comes in.

“I’m available to meet with students from any tradition or no tradition we’re all kind of trained in multi-faith,” Harter said. “Really students can come to us for any reason, but if they have questions about meaning or are struggling we’re here.”

Harter said that he often speaks to students who feel they are alone on this struggle and he wants students to know that is not true.

“I think the important thing is demystifying mental health issues. It’s more common than you realize,” Harter said. “Elon’s great, everyone seems so put together, wonderfully strong leaders, great achievers on this campus but people often struggle more than you realize. There are a lot of people that need help.”

Harter, who has lived with mental health issues, said that part of dealing with it is also accepting it.

“You need to learn that even your weaknesses have strengths in them and you have to learn to accept them,” Harter said.

If turning to religious or spiritual outlets are not your thing, some Elon University students, faculty and staff members have been getting a helping ‘paw’ to maintain their mental health.

Disability Services at Elon University says they’ve seen an increase in service animals around campus. Though Elon has a policy against animals being inside of buildings, service animals are the exception. Students like senior Emma Hughes uses an emotional support animal, a type of service animal, to treat conditions like depression and anxiety.

Jan Hoffman of “The New York Times” notes in her article titled “Campuses Debate Rising Demands for ‘Comfort Animals’” that colleges and universities across the country are meeting an increasing demand for comfort animals, another type of service animal, for the treatment of mental health. The article states, “Anxiety, followed closely by depression, has become a growing diagnosis among college students in the last few years. The calming effect of some domesticated animals has become so widely accepted that many schools bring in trained therapy dogs to play with stressed students during exam periods.”

If you or a friend ever feel like you need help, reach out to Elon’s Counseling Services at (336) 278–7280 Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. An on-call counselor can be reached at any time through Elon’s Campus Safety and Police at (336) 278–5555. If you want to go beyond Elon for help, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1 (800) 273–8255.