UA needs to further address mental health problems

Jessica Fulwider, Contributing writer

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College is a significant period of personal growth. Unfortunately, with this new opportunity comes fears over classes, social situations and the future. Many students experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression can be forced to endure prejudice during their college years. It is important that the University of Alabama supply students with modern and innovative options for help during their most formative years.

Students I’ve interviewed reported feeling like the challenges they’ve faced with regard to their mental health have made it difficult for them to connect with others. Some feel that when many don’t understand how mental illness works or what it’s like to deal with, it’s futile to build relationships with people who may not be understanding.

A 2014 study by the American College Health Association reports that 21.9 percent of students reported anxiety getting in the way of their academics and 13.8 percent reported suffering from depression.

I’ve reached out to UA students and faculty through social media to share their experiences dealing with stigmas surrounding mental illness. One student explained their experience with the stigma first hand. They thought if they had ever expressed that they have mental health issues, which they rarely do, the person will kind of just brush it off and change the subject. A UA professor witnessed a student go through depression and isolation due to not being properly walked through the mental health services UA offers.

Some feel like life would be easier if their ailment was physical rather than mental; after all, nobody asks you to just “get over it” when you have a broken leg. When you’re depressed or suffering from an anxiety disorder, though, many expect you to just “snap out of it.” When some college students don’t want to converse with a person with a mental illness, it is clear there is a problem. The social enforcement of the negative stigma will continue to exist unless a serious change is initiated.

This problem must be solved.

We must educate all students on mental illness, as well as how to manage a healthy life with these mental illnesses.

One of the first steps in ending the stigma is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, and their StigmaFree campaign. The aim is to identify and understand the illness, “See the person, not the condition” and take action. The goal of the campaign is to create relationships between people and the education of mental illnesses leading to a decrease of the stigma.

In recent years at the University, we educated our incoming students about safe sex and alcohol abuse through a tedious set of processes known as Haven and AlcoholEDU. These hours-long courses are done online before you register for your first semester of classes, requiring an 80 percent or above to pass. AlcoholEDU and Haven go through different modules that educate students and then help the student set goals while testing the knowledge taught in previous modules. At no point are they taught about mental health effects from alcoholism or mental health in general. Because there is no mental health education in this course, these students are left to believe that the only way to acquire these illnesses is through poor and immature actions made while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Although AlcoholEDU gives students general knowledge of alcohol and drugs, it does not show how bad it potentially could  get. If the course could introduce the resources on campus as they pertain to mental health, students would be more inclined to reach out for help. As I was writing this column advocating for an updated education of mental health, the University released a new program this fall, AlphaPoint, that encompasses all of the knowledge from AlcoholEDU and Haven, but also includes mental health awareness. Sadly, the University has restricted access to this new educational material to incoming freshman and first semester transfer students. This leaves out the current students who were only required to complete the bleak virtual classes that have been the protocol for years. When questioned about gaining access, I was informed that the University pays per student to complete the course. Does that imply that mental health is reduced to a monetary value, something that our university was not willing to invest in?

In order to rectify this problem, the University should create a mandatory class that teaches all incoming students the true causes and symptoms of mental illnesses, while simultaneously giving these students salient lessons on sex and alcohol. This way of teaching brings these illnesses into the light, which should be the goal of these programs. This education would require a lot of time and effort for students, and it should be turned into a full class to allow students to digest it all and understand what their classmates might be living with.

This course should be a one-credit seminar covering all facets of health. In addition to the existing education provided on substance abuse and sexual assault, this course would look at the most commonly known mental disorders and the symptoms that accompany them. The course would also work to debunk the myths and fears that the students may have concerning those with mental illness, proving that those afflicted are just as human as everyone else. By enacting this curriculum, the University can ensure that all students are given the tools to see their classmates as equals.

This is a matter of extreme importance for campus and for Tuscaloosa as a whole, lest we see the continued negative effects of discrimination against our community members. By getting behind the StigmaFree campaign and cultivating a sense of egalitarianism regarding mental conditions in our peers, we will be able to create a safer environment for not only students with mental illnesses, but for every person on campus. This will allow those with mental conditions to live fearlessly and strive to become far more than what their diagnosis desperately tries to make them become. Potentially through AlphaPoint and through more thorough courses on mental health, the University can make a positive change for the community.

This may not be an easy process, but it will be worth it. If the University strives to be a true family, we should make a more prominent effort to care for every family member individually, not alienating our own.