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Samah Pirzada: Positive dialogue about mental health necessary to erase stigma

By Samah Pirzada

Sep. 28, 2014 12:00 am

Last year, the demand for student mental health services at UCLA increased by 23 percent.

But even as demand increases and college students continue to struggle mentally and emotionally, a stigma still exists around mental health issues that prevents students from being proactive in seeking help.

This year, the Undergraduate Students Association Council, through its Student Wellness Commission and Office of the President, is attempting to decrease stigma around mental health issues through a new campaign called “All of Us.” If it succeeds, the campaign could create positive and necessary conversation around mental health issues that engages the whole campus and not just those involved in student government.

Organizations like USAC can help start a conversation, but it is up to smaller communities to continue it. If more individual communities, like student groups, discuss mental health, more people would feel comfortable with the topic and will be more likely to reach out for help.

The USAC campaign should work to highlight resources that are already available for students, such as the Active Minds committee that is housed under the Student Wellness Commission. The committee does not provide counseling, but instead acts as a mediator between the undergraduate population and the counseling services available. The committee is another step in the right direction because it informs campus about mental health issues and connects students with the right resources, normalizing the use of counseling services.

While the Active Minds committee can serve as an excellent point of access for on-campus students, “All of Us” can help shed light on another resource that has been available to students: the Bruin Resource Center. The center focuses on helping veterans, students with attendants or children, transfers, students formerly or currently in foster care and undocumented students.

Many of these students may have more difficulty accessing the campus resources others take for granted. To help them, the center is increasing their social media presence to connect students with peers who are dealing with the same issues.

The Bruin Resource Center also helps educate staff and professors to address the fact that certain groups of students may feel marginalized by different parts of the university, which is a huge step in the right direction toward addressing mental health issues.

Normalizing the search for help across all communities is particularly important considering that mental health issues are becoming more relevant to the entire student body. According to a study conducted in 2012 by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, almost half of incoming freshmen rated their mental and emotional health as average or below average. But last year, only 20 percent of UCLA students were treated on campus for mental health issues.

As incoming freshmen or transfers, students deal with an intense change and it’s common for them to feel extreme stress or anxiety. Many students feel overwhelmed with the freedom that comes with being in college and away from home, as well as living in a new space with new people. As college continues, there is no shortage of stresses, whether financial, academic or personal, to damage mental and emotional health – and sometimes, there is no catalyst at all for a student’s emotional struggle. But more importantly, feelings of anxiety or sadness are often accompanied by shame or by the sense that one can’t handle situations that everyone else seems to be dealing with just fine.

This is where activism around mental health can drastically improve college students’ experiences by creating positive dialogue around available resources. “All of Us” could play a huge role in closing the gap between resources that exist at UCLA and the students who need them.

All of the resources UCLA offers to promote mental health are useless if the stigma around counseling persists. The only way to get rid of this stigma is for students to reach out to each other and start dialogue about the importance of maintaining mental health.

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