Express to de-stress: Reducing mental health stigmas with Active Minds

| Staff Reporter

Here at Washington University, students often hear about issues of sexual assault, cultural appropriation, race, gender and sexuality, all of which are extremely relevant and important. However, an issue that receives less attention, but plays into all of these concerns, is that of mental health. This year, Active Minds is looking to change that.

Active Minds, a national organization whose Wash. U. chapter started around four years ago, aims to address the stigma that exists around mental health and getting help for people with mental illnesses.

Senior Chelsea Birchmier, president of Active Minds, creates a painting during the student group's de-stressing event, which was held in Ursa's on Tuesday evening.Skyler Kessler | Student Life

Senior Chelsea Birchmier, president of Active Minds, creates a painting during the student group’s de-stressing event, which was held in Ursa’s on Tuesday evening.

“There’s a lot of stigma around mental illness that isn’t present around, say, physical illness,” Chelsea Birchmier, senior and current president of the Wash. U. chapter, said. “A lot of times, people joke about mental health or say things that can be insensitive without realizing it. People say things like, ‘I’m going to kill myself’ or ‘I’m going to die if this happens’ in a joking manner. It can also manifest in people being too ashamed or embarrassed in getting help because there is that stigma there. So a lot of people may suffer in silence, or may not feel comfortable talking to a counselor or their friends about it.”

On Tuesday, the club hosted their “Express to De-stress: Exploring Mental Health Through Art” event at Ursa’s Fireside, where attendees busied but relaxed their minds with Play-Doh, colored pencils and other mediums. They were asked to answer the prompt, “What does mental health mean to you?” through the cathartic act of crafting.

“I think doing little things like [arts and crafts] help you get through a tough day,” freshman Max Bucksbaum, an attendee of the event, said. “Everybody can take the time and do something for 20 or 30 minutes that’s fun, and I think it has a big impact.”

Club members also aimed to help spread awareness about the pervasiveness of mental illness at the event, handing out pins printed with the little-known fact that one in four college students are affected by mental health problems.

Often, the concept of mental illness is associated with having a specific disorder or condition. While the club does talk about these specific, diagnosable problems, it also places mental health within a wider scope, considering individuals’ general mental well-being on a day-to-day basis.

Bob Liu, a junior who recently joined the club, expressed why he thought issues of mental health happen to be so prevalent on college campuses.

“I think it’s related to the time of our lives where in college [you’ve] learned how to develop your mind, how you’re thinking on your own and who you really want to be,” Liu said. “It’s a big transition and with that comes a lot of stress and not knowing where you want to fit in, what you want to do in the world. It’s a time when a lot could go wrong if you don’t monitor yourself, be careful and learn how to think positively.”

Liu also mentioned that he personally decided to join the club because he realized how much people often take “being able to appreciate the small joys in life for granted.” The group meetings that Active Minds coordinates help people both feel increasingly grateful for this ability, and, for those affected, understand that seeking help should not be considered a shameful act.

“It’s a great place to express yourself,” sophomore Teran Mickens, who has attended meetings in the past, said. “You go in there knowing that there are people who can relate to what you are going through. You might be nervous giving your perspective, but no one is there to judge you.”

Birchmier said she believes that Wash. U. does offer an adequate number of resources to people who are struggling with mental health issues—it’s a just a matter of getting students to take the first step to reach out and ask for that help. However, the club is in the process of trying to make a few changes to the system, including making it more accessible.

“We’re definitely trying to have more events focusing on the intersection between mental health and other issues, like mental health and sexual assault, mental health and microaggressions,” Birchmier said. “Also, we want to address mental health barriers and certain underserved communities on campus.”

It is also hoping to increase programming during orientation, which currently does not sufficiently address mental health issues.

For now, Liu advises, “It’s very important to reach out to those affected and let them know that it’s OK for it to be not OK. Help them accept that it might not just be a phase—to reach out and get help and know that on the other side, it’s a lot better, and you can always look back on it as a building experience. You can learn how to use your mind and cultivate your own happiness.”

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