College Breaks the Silence on Student Depression Crisis

October 29, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media – Studies show that a large percentage of college students with depression are isolated, reluctant to talk about their condition and too ashamed to seek treatment.

However, at Pierce College in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, some students with depression – and those who care about them – are networking to encourage their classmates to seek treatment and are creating platforms to tell their stories to help eliminate the stigma associated with mental health problems.

This stories-instead-of-stigma initiative, a model for campus-based education on mental health, was the subject of an Oct. 21 “Breaking Silence” forum at Pierce organized by New America Media. It was the latest development in NAM’s #FeelBetter campaign to disseminate the stories of young people struggling with depression.

Previously, the #FeelBetter campaign used social media to tell these stories. However, the Pierce College forum was evidence that student media coverage, public conferences on the issue and online training on depression warning signs could help generate campus awareness about mental health issues and the availability of treatment.

The online training, available to all college students, was promoted by Beth Benne, director of the Pierce College Student Health Center, one of the speakers at the forum.

“We need to stop the progression of depression,” Benne told the 150 Pierce students at the forum. “We need to eliminate the stigma.”

The impact of stigma on college campuses has been documented by a number of surveys. For example, a national study by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that one in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness. A 2012 study by the National Alliance on Mental Health found that almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus. However, only 34.2 percent reported that their college knew about their crisis, that study said. In addition, a recent survey by the National Alliance on Mental Health found that 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions did not seek help.

Pierce College journalism students produced a publication that profiled the experiences of students struggling with depression. Many of these students challenged the stigma by speaking at the forum.

“Interviewing these individuals who were open and willing to talk was an eye-opener,” said student journalist Sergei Cuba. “We’re social beings and need to communicate with each other.”

Another Pierce student journalist, Richie Zamora, said talking about depression doesn’t just help those struggling with it, but also helps the wider community. “Being informed is important,” he said. “A lot of first responders can be classmates and friends.”

Students profiled in the Pierce College “Breaking Silence” publication, affirmed the need to communicate with classmates, friends and family.

Pierce student Cameron Benner, who was hospitalized at age 16 after attempting to commit suicide for a condition that lingers, said students need to overcome societal stigmas and share their experiences to help them cope.

“No matter how bad you feel, there are people who care about you,” Benner said. “Having someone to talk to makes a difference…If you’re having a problem, you should also talk to a mental health counselor or see a doctor.”

Another student, Kevin Hetrick, told the forum audience that his depression developed at age 14 and that he had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized two years ago, after contemplating suicide.

”For me, depression took hold when I was isolated,” he said. “I needed to know someone was there for me…The solution is – I need people in my life.”

A panel of mental health experts at the forum said there are medical safety nets for those with depression. Speakers noted that students from families with low-incomes can get mental health treatment under the Affordable Care Act. In some areas – Los Angeles County among them – people struggling with depression can get help even if they have no health insurance or if they are undocumented, said Terica Roberts, a therapist who has worked for L.A. County mental health agencies.

It’s also important to know some of the warning signs of depression, said Niaz Khani, a clinical therapist at the Pierce College Student Health Center. She said they can include the following:

• poor concentration in class or at work

• feelings of worthilessness and low self-esteem

• guilt

• trouble controlling rage

• wanting to harm others

• contemplation of suicide

• difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much.

“Don’t be alone in dealing with this,” Dr. Khani said.

NAM’s community college initiative on youth depression is supported by the California Health Care Foundation. Additional support for expanding ethnic and youth media coverage of mental health issues comes from The California Endowment, The California Wellness Foundation, The Orchard House Foundation, The Parnassus Fund, The Arthur Rock Foundation, The Wallace A Gerbode Foundation, and The Zellerbach Family Fund. 

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