By Matt Biddle
Caitlin Bango, a senior psychology major, has dealt with mental illness her whole life. Many of her family members have suffered from anxiety, a mental disorder in which someone feels apprehensive or tense for no apparent reason.
During high school, Bango began to feel nervous in class or before going up to the chalkboard. Eventually she recognized she also suffered from the condition, “I hadn’t always realized that I had anxiety, that it wasn’t a normal way to feel,” she said.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from some form of a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. This translates into more than 50 million people dealing with a mental illness this year alone.
Furthermore, a 2007 Harvard Medical School and World Health Organization study found that the U.S. has the most instances of diagnosed cases of mental disorders–especially depression. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 18 percent of Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental illness in the country.
When Bango arrived at Ithaca College in 2005, she joined Active Minds, a group dedicated to raising awareness about mental health. She is now the co-president. Last year Bango began taking medication to help control her anxiety. “Being in Active Minds made me realize that if I’m advocating for these people, I need to focus on myself, too,” she said.
Even with its prevalence in society, many still misunderstand mental illness. “The images they get come from the media,” said Carol Booth, the president of the Ithaca chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness. “People develop stereotypes. These stereotypes lead to the stigma.”
While it may seem typical to blame the media, a recent study in the Journal of Health Communication confirms those who watch films such as Psycho, Fatal Attraction or One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest were more likely to develop negative views toward people with mental illness.
The study found films often portray people who suffer from mental illnesses as failures, victims or maniacs. Mental illness is also the most common health problem to affect characters on soap operas–shows not exactly known for realism. The common use of terms like “deranged” or “psycho,” combined with various framing techniques — like certain lighting schemes or music arrangements during a scene that includes a person with any form of mental illness — perpetuates the stigma.
This public’s lack of adequate knowledge about mental illness contributes to the stigma toward those who suffer from illnesses such as anxiety, in part because there isn’t significant education on the subject to counter the harmful effects of the media. Booth said much of the stigma comes from people who incorrectly consider these disorders to be more controllable than other illnesses. “We need to equate mental illness with other biological illnesses,” she said.
This stigma causes many who could benefit from seeking help to hide their illness and deny their problem. Dr. LeBron Rankins, a psychologist at IC’s counseling center, encounters many students who remark they were initially afraid to come in and speak with a professional. “Going to counseling, for a lot of people, is equal to being weak,” he said. This is also part of the reason that men traditionally seek counseling less than women do: it’s less socially acceptable for men to appear weak.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, almost half of college students report feeling so depressed at times that they have trouble functioning. Almost 15 percent of students have been diagnosed with clinical depression. “I think that’s a very stressful time of your life-leaving home,” Booth said, also mentioning the added stress of maintaining a high GPA and finishing the ever-increasing mountain of coursework.
IC’s Active Minds’ other co-president, Joe Fraioli, believes some people hide their illness in order to not hurt those around them. He speaks from personal experience: He suffered from depression throughout high school. “I dealt with it in a very self-destructive way,” he admits. Fraioli says he blamed himself for his issues, which only worsened the depression. “I was so scared of the concept of ‘counseling’ from the stigma surrounding it that I kept it inside and never sought help [during high school],” he said.
Contrary to popular belief, clinical depression is not the same as simply being sad. While an emotionally draining event, such as a death, can trigger depression, it is the result of a combination of biological and environmental factors and can linger for weeks, months or even years. It affects one’s thoughts, behaviors and their ability to work, study and interact with others.
When Fraioli arrived at IC, he learned about Active Minds and became angry that a similar outlet was not available for him during high school. “It’s one of the reasons why I am pushing so hard this year to start a chapter of Active Minds at Ithaca High School,” he said. Fraioli and Active Minds are planning to speak with students at the high school soon to generate interest in starting a chapter there.
There are warning signs you can recognize if you develop concerns about a loved one. While they vary with each case, most boil down to a persistent, dramatic change in one’s daily habits, such as showering or sleeping much less or much more often than usual.
While some family members deny or overlook a problem out of fear or denial, it’s important for family and friends to look out for each other. If a person doesn’t seek help, it can hurt them and their relationships. “People are afraid of being locked up or ostracized from their social situation,” Catherine Wedge, the community educator for the Mental Health Association of Tompkins County, said, emphasizing the need for family to point loved ones to helpful resources.
Away from home, the college community can act as that familial unit and support network. IC started a new program this year for students who are hesitant about bringing concerns directly to their friends. Though it is relatively unknown so far on campus, the Assisting Students at Risk Initiative allows students, faculty and staff to report concerns over a student’s well-being or the campus community’s safety to one central location.
“If multiple students bring concerns, they can recognize that the person needs support,” Rankins said. Students are encouraged to discuss their concerns with the person directly or with a professional staff member, such as a residence director or someone within the Office of Public Safety, before filing an official report with the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs and Campus Life. This open conversation can then encourage the person to seek the help they need.
“The best thing to do is not to fight it, but to talk about it,” Fraioli said of the stigma. “Bring up conversation.” This is what Active Minds aims to accomplish on campus through events and other campaigns. The group held De-Stress Fest on Dec. 3, 2008 and will hold its annual Stomp out the Stigma rally in late February. Active Minds also hopes to host another play like last year’s Dying to be Thin, as well as another De-Stress event next semester. The group meets Wednesdays at 7 p.m. in Williams 218.
In creating dialogue, Rankins advises people to be aware of how they talk about mental health. “Much of the stigma is maintained through certain comments in conversation,” he said. Tossing around words like ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ contributes to the stigma.
“One thing that helps is people that are very famous being willing to talk about it,” Wedge said. In 2007, for example, actress Mandy Moore discussed her bout with depression in Jane magazine. Critics praised actress Carrie Fisher for openly discussing in a book how she dealt with bipolar disorder, and actress Brooke Shields penned a tell-all book about her struggle through postpartum depression.
Booth believes in the strength and necessity of education and wants everyone to realize that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. She teaches a class in Tompkins County schools to students from fifth grade to high school called “Breaking the Silence: Lessons about Mental Illness,” which attempts to reach students before they develop a stigma toward mental illness.
In some ways the stigma is becoming less prevalent across the nation and on our campus. Rankins has seen an increase in students already accessing care before they reach college. At the Counseling Center, the number of students seeking care continues to increase. According to data provided by Counseling Center Director Deb Harper, during the 2007-2008 school year 742 students sought clinical services and 226 of them came to the Counseling Center during daytime emergency hours. This represents a 7 percent increase over the previous school year in the overall use of clinical services and a 23 percent increase over five years ago. Additionally, nearly 500 students took online mental health screenings during the last school year. Those who showed indications of depression or anxiety were then encouraged to come in to the Counseling Center for a discussion and evaluation.
“Requests for intakes have been steady enough that we’ve been booking almost two weeks in advance for scheduled first-time appointments,” Harper said. “That’s the longest wait for scheduled appointments we’ve had in many years.” So far, 340 students have used the Counseling Center this year.
At the same time, the stigma is still present and affecting those with a mental disorder. As Fraioli said, “I think we’re making progress, but there’s still a ways to go.”
Matt Biddle is a sophomore journalism major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.