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University of Minnesota
April 18, 2013
Students walking along the Washington Avenue Bridge stop to read signs written by people in honor of friends and family members who have struggled with mental illness.
The scene along the south side of the Washington Avenue pedestrian bridge was striking and sobering: black folding chairs lined up as far as the eye could see—1,100 of them leading to a figurative vanishing point outside the Weisman Art Museum.
That total corresponded to the number of college students who commit suicide each year, a fact pointed out by the organizers of Mental Health Awareness Day (MHAD) on April 16, an annual U event held to do just that—raise awareness about mental illness and reduce the lingering stigma attached to talking openly about it.
Mental health issues can affect anyone; in fact, it’s estimated that one in four adults—nearly 58 million Americans—experiences a mental health disorder in a given year.
In addition, 1 in 17 of us lives with a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder, major depression, or schizophrenia, and about 1 in 10 children experiences a serious mental or emotional disorder.
Twenty-two years ago, “I was one of those people,” Mark Meier told the crowd at the MHAD event, looking west toward the foot traffic over the Mississippi. “Because of my depression, I used to dangle myself off this very bridge.”
Meier is now a licensed clinical social worker and an instructor in the School of Medicine, and he complimented organizers of MHAD for helping people understand that mental illness is an everyday part of many people’s lives.
That fact was underscored by a number of students who spontaneously walked up to the small stage and shared their stories—even bared their souls—to an appreciative audience.
"Things are much easier to manage … at the front end than when they become debilitating,” Hanson says. “And it’s not uncommon for them to become debilitating." — Matt Hanson
Two students spoke of having anxiety and panic disorders, among other symptoms, and their struggles to cope and to excel in the face of adversity. “There is hope, and you do have to forgive yourself,” said one. “You have to love who you are before anyone can love you.”
Then there was 19-year-old Anna Barton, who shared her story of growing up in a family where suicide was actually discussed openly. Both her paternal grandfather and aunt had taken their own lives, and both she and her dad had experienced their own mental health issues.
Barton shared that when she was in the hospital seeking help about a year ago, she received a number of messages from her father saying that he wanted to talk. The conversation never took place, and a few days later, he committed suicide.
“Even though I didn’t have the best relationship with him, I would give anything just to talk to him again,” she said. “That choice that you make to [take] yourself out of the world is so much bigger than you would ever believe.”
Students take advantage of help at the U
At University Counseling and Career Services (UCCS), the number of students accessing mental health services has been going up by about 5 percent each year, according to Matt Hanson, senior psychologist and coordinator for outreach and career services. He says UCCS sees about 1,500 students a year for a total of about 8,000 appointments, adding that Boynton Health Service sees about twice that number.
“There’s been an upward trend, with more students every year that are seeking out mental health services, and the same is true for Boynton,” says Hanson.
The reasons for the increase are varied. “I think there is more willingness to seek out mental health services, so the stigma is going down and there are lots of efforts in that direction,” he says. “I think this generation of students is more open to receiving therapy or to seek out counseling services than their parents were. There have been shifts in that direction where there’s more willingness to seek out help.” Many arrive on campus having already received counseling and/or medications.
And, he adds, “I think students are just generally more stressed out.”
That can lead to difficulties in school, trouble with relationships, and problems with substance abuse, which in turn can spiral into even bigger problems. Which is why seeking help at an early stage is so important and encouraged University-wide. (See video below.)
“Things are much easier to manage … at the front end than when they become debilitating,” Hanson says. “And it’s not uncommon for them to become debilitating.
“The more things we add to our life, the more stress we experience without attention—without some kind of intervention—the more intractable they become.”
And that makes events like Tuesday’s even more crucial, he adds. “This is an important thing to keep in mind—that mental health has its limits, that we’re all prone to different stressors, that we can all experience anxiety and depression in different levels and for different durations based on what’s happening in our lives … It can affect anybody; it’s nondiscriminating.”
The last phase of this year's Step Up campaign features messages regarding mental health. For more on the campaign visit Step Up.