Student group fights mental health stigma

Active Minds
Active Minds at Maryland members serve Rita’s ices at their Stress Less Week carnival last spring. Photo courtesy of Active Minds at Maryland.

Josh Ratner was heavily involved with the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland, serving as the vice-president of student affairs, but his mental health nearly derailed his college career.

During his freshman year, Ratner was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety.

“Quite frankly, I almost failed out of school,” he said. “It took almost two years to get stabilized so I could function properly, and that’s something that tons of students face.”

Now with his student career on track, the senior government and politics major, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in Great Neck, N.Y., uses his past SGA experience and the knowledge he has gained serving on Active Minds’ national student advisory committee to push for reforms on campus.

He’s joined in that fight by the University of Maryland chapter of Active Minds, a student advocacy organization that wishes to change the conversation about mental health by pushing for policy change and increased funding for on-campus mental health services.

This year, Active Minds at Maryland is working closely with police and university officials.

“If you harm yourself or are worried you’re going to hurt yourself, you can call the police and they’ll come and get you — but they take you away in handcuffs, which can be traumatizing to a person with mental health issues,” Ratner said.
Particularly troubling, Ratner said, is if a student makes another similar call, his or her campus housing can be put in jeopardy, making it less likely for a student to seek help a second time.

“If you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, you’ll get sent to counseling, get help and your housing is not affected,” said Ratner. “But if it’s mental health, you can get kicked out of housing.”

Active Minds at Maryland has also increased its lobbying efforts to secure funds for mental health services on the College Park campus. The group received a boost this year when the university announced that a portion of the $500,000 expected per year from beer sales at UMD football and basketball games will go toward mental health counseling. This is the first academic year in which UMD is allowing the sale of alcohol in its stadiums.

The group has worked successfully with other student organizations and the SGA. Two years ago, Active Minds’ advocacy helped ensure that a $5 million dollar gift to the university from the Pepsi Corp. went to the University Health Center and the Counseling Center. The gift, to be disbursed over 10 years, originally was not earmarked for a specific project.

It came at a time when the campus had been rocked by recent gun violence. In February 2013, a graduate student who had a mental illness shot two of his roommates, killing one, before taking his own life.

At the time UMD President Wallace Loh told the student newspaper The Diamondback, “We know elsewhere in the country if people don’t get mental health treatment, bad things can happen — not all the time, but there are enough violent acts committed by people who need mental health services.”

Those violent acts are rare compared to the one in four students Jaclyn Webber, Active Minds at Maryland’s campus outreach coordinator, cited who will experience depression or anxiety. At UMD, Webber said, that translates to approximately 17,000 students who may be in need of mental health services.

For many students, college is the first time they are away from home and their social circle. Others, used to being high-achievers in high school, find themselves ill-equipped to deal with college-level academic pressures. Still others may have had issues that surfaced only once they came to college’s unique setting.

Sharon Kirkland-Gordon, director of the Counseling Center, said, “We have a checklist to assess [students’ concerns] and the number one endorsed item is loneliness. The past five or six years it’s been loneliness, followed by feelings associated with anxiety and followed by feelings associated with depression.”

This, she said, is despite all the technologies that are meant to create connections. Knowing that, Kirkland-Gordon and her colleagues have added more group therapeutic models to help students build interpersonal relationships.
The Pepsi Corp. funds, doled out in $500,000 chunks each year, was used to hire more staff members.

Typically, Kirkland-Gordon said, within the counseling services division, there are 17 psychologists, one care manager and four doctoral interns. The University Health Center is responsible for psychiatric services; counseling is done through the Counseling Center.

Wait time for an appointment has been reduced to allow students seeking help to be seen within one or two weeks, according to Kirkland-Gordon.

But Ratner and his Active Minds colleagues would like to see more improvements. The wait time, Ratner maintains, is still too long for the number of students who need help immediately and can’t wait two weeks for an appointment. The number of counseling sessions available — capped at eight, but can be extended to 12 with permission — is not enough for those who need ongoing care.

“I had to wait three weeks after my initial call to get an appointment,” recalled Ratner. “When you have an issue, that doesn’t cut it.”

However, he said, “Once you get the services they’re fantastic. I don’t think anyone works harder than the mental health professionals. They frequently work through lunch because they know people need help.”

Active Minds was borne out of a family tragedy. When founder Alison Malmon was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, her brother Brian ended his life. Brian had experienced depression and psychosis during his college years. He wound up returning to his family’s home in Potomac midway through his senior year of college where he began treatment for schizoaffective disorder.

Motivated to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and help others like her brother seek help early, Malmon created Active Minds, then known as Open Minds, during her junior year. Malmon’s vision was rapidly adopted on other campuses, the second being Active Minds at Georgetown University. Today, Active Minds has more than 400 chapters nationwide and was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2003 with headquarters in Washington.

Active Minds at Maryland has put an emphasis on debunking stigma, said Webber, a junior psychology major.

The chapter, which has 20 members, hosts weekly meetings, sponsors events around mental awareness months, tables near the Student Union and holds panel discussions.

At those panels, students share with faculty and fellow students “their mental health story, whether it be their experiences, their mother’s, their friend’s — they stand up there and share how their lives have been affected by mental health,” said Webber. The sympathetic atmosphere “creates this safe, warm space where we can reduce stigma.”

The chapter spends the year planning a carnival that takes place on the Thursday of the national Active Minds Stress Less Week, always held the third week in April. Webber said approximately 1,000 to 2,000 people pass through their carnival set up on the main academic mall. There they can get information on mental health facts and resources, take a jump on the moon bounce, cuddle with puppies, play games aimed at reducing stress and sample free Rita’s Italian Ice.

The Counseling Center’s Kirkland-Gordon said, “When I started nearly 30 years ago, counseling was not seen as something really common with students. These days you have students bringing other students. You have parents calling. You have students who are self-referred.”

Active Minds, she said, and other groups, “have helped turn the tide in terms of stigma.”

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