July 21, 2018 | ° F

Rutgers club opens the conversation about mental health

Mental health is an issue that affects many college students, but a club at Rutgers is dedicated to reducing the stigma that surrounds the topic. 

Active Minds, a club at Rutgers that is a part of a larger national organization, is committed to fighting the stigma regarding mental health issues, such as depression, and helping students get professional help when necessary.

“Our main goal is to fight the stigma around mental health," said Madura Vaidya, a member of the Active Minds chapter at Rutgers. “People aren’t really educated about these issues because the stigma is so great.”

Eighty to 90 percent of college students who die by suicide were not receiving help from their college counseling centers and half of students who have suicidal thoughts never seek counseling or treatment, according to the club's website. Widespread stigma prevents many of these students from seeking the help they need to recover. 

“We realized that there is this huge stigma at Rutgers and all the universities for reaching out for mental health, and we don’t like that," said Austin Wong, co-president of the Active Minds chapter at the University.

In a 2006 study by the American College Health Association, nearly half of all college students reported having felt so depressed in the past year they could not function, according to the club's website.

“We want to teach people to keep open minds about it and how to raise awareness, especially on college campuses," Vaidya said. “You don’t really realize it, but there is so much going on, and some students don’t even realize how many people are affected by it.”

An estimated 26 percent of Americans ages 18 and older, or about one in four adults, live with a diagnosable mental health disorder, according to the club’s website.

The Rutgers chapter was started as a result of former Resident Assistant Kendall Flanagan deciding that something must be done about the stigma surrounding mental health.

“Sometimes someone would share something personal about their mental health, and that opens other people up who may not have shared otherwise," said Flanagan, co-president of the Rutgers branch of Active Minds.

Mental health issues in the college student population, such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, are associated with lower GPA and higher probability of dropping out of college. More than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless, according to Active Minds website.

“People want to have these conversations, but they aren’t sure if they can," Flanagan said. “Or they may need a certain environment or someone to share first before they’re comfortable.”

Active Minds is currently in the process of bringing their international programs to the University, such as their program, "Send Silence Packing."

Active Minds has an award-winning event for mental health awareness where students place 1,100 backpacks all around campus, Wong said. The 1,100 backpacks represent the yearly number of college students that commit suicide.

“The event brings the issues regarding depression right into the student eye,” Wong said.

Past events have experienced some success in raising awareness of mental health issues, such as suicide, depression and anxiety. Program evaluation data reveals that individuals leave the display wanting to learn more about mental health.

Active Minds' website claims that 91 percent of survey respondents rate the display as powerful or very powerful. Eighty-three percent report that it is educational.

“Our goal is to raise awareness and teach people that there isn’t anything to be ashamed of," Vaidya said. “We want to teach students and the communities that surround us about how to deal with mental illnesses, if you or people around you have them.”

In addition to fighting the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, Active Minds is also dedicated to helping students find resources to aid in recovery.

Active Minds cannot treat students themselves. The club works closely with organizations that can, such as Rutgers’ Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program & Psychiatric Services (CAPS).

“We don’t really go much into treatment because we obviously aren’t trained professionals," Vaidya said. “But we do have resources available, so we work very closely with CAPS.”

The club plans to increase the amount of resources that students have on campus to combat mental health issues, Flanagan and Wong said. The club has a variety of links on its website to teach the signs and symptoms of mental health, advice for helping friends and phone numbers for people that need immediate help.

“We have other resources in addition to CAPS that we can refer people to for people who are looking for treatment," Vaidya said.

Connor McCarthy

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