Taboo Talk discusses mental health stigmatization

By AMANDA SPADARO

Science Editor

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Allegheny’s Center for Intercultural Advancement and Student Success hosted a discussion on mental health and cognitive disorders called The (Dis)abilities We Cannot See on Thursday, Feb. 6.

As the fourth talk in the series of Taboo Talks moderated by valerie guerrero, assistant director of CIASS, and Kazi Joshua, associate dean and director of CIASS, the talk aimed to address the major concerns of students regarding mental health on campus.

The talk featured guest hosts Lydia Jones, ’14, president of Active Minds, Michelle Miller from the Counseling Center and Monali Chowdhury, professor of psychology, to offer further insight on topics addressed.

One of the primary points of discussion was the importance of addressing mental health concerns with the same weight that our society addresses physical health. Just like if a person has the flu and would seek treatment for that, a person with a mental health concern also needs to focus on receiving treatment and help for that as well.

Jones in particular spoke to this by emphasizing the need for excuses from the Counseling Center to be considered a health absence on professors’ syllabi at the beginning of every semester. While professors are typically understanding of students with physical sickness, the discussion furthered the concept that mental health needs to be given the same level of importance as physical health.

“[Discussion about mental health is] so important is because it’s a health concern, just like a physical health problem,” Miller said. “It’s something that needs to be addressed; it’s part of your daily life. It has a huge impact on how people function day to day.”

An important part of addressing mental health in the same fashion as physical health is opening up discussion about mental health, especially with professors on campus.

Students at the talk discussed how they want to feel more able to talk to their professors about mental health so that both parties are aware. As mental health is highly stigmatized in our culture, making conversations open and productive would help alleviate some misconceptions about mental health.

“The conversation is a large part of it, discussion and contact with people who experience mental illness. Contact with people really helps other to embrace understanding and embrace someone else’s experiences,” Miller said. “Education is also really important; education reports have been shown to make a significant impact on increasing understanding and knowledge of mental illness.”

Aside from making a community that is more open to discussion of this “taboo” topic, prevention over treatment was a major discussion point as well. Because of the stigma attached to mental illness, there is a hesitancy to seek help for various reasons: feeling like a burden, feeling as though the situation is not important, feeling silly or weak-minded, and so on.

With these societal fears in mind, people often wait until they are in the middle of an acute crisis before seeking help, a point in time when the situation often overwhelming and dire.

Treating counseling and approaching mental health as a preventive process rather than treating emergencies, people who struggle with these problems may feel better informed to work on their situation, learning coping skills and behavioral adaptations to lessen the impact.

“We also need to make it apparent that [counseling is] not a last resort; that’s what people do when it comes to counseling,” said Hilario Segarra, ’15. “They wait for it to get as bad as it can get before they do anything about it. It’s not that we’re not alert [of our mental health], it’s that we’re scared to do anything about it because of the judgment and we need to change that.”

Removal of that stigma attached to mental health is a primary concern right now, apparent from the discussion during the talk. Opening the discussion to the community is one of the first steps in creating a society where mental health isn’t considered so taboo and stigmatized. Education about topics revolving around mental health would also help to diminish judgment.

“We think of mental disabilities or psychological disorders and we think they aren’t that serious, but it’s life-threatening,” Dan Pecchio, ’15, said. “It’s challenging enough without the stigma and that’s something we can change. We can’t make a world without these problems, but we can at least take away what we contribute to them.”

Even small talks between friends can begin the process of removing the stigma and creating an open environment in which mental health can be discussed.

“I would love to see, over time, students being more comfortable talking about it within their own friend groups because that’s a lot of times where change happens, where that immediate support is,” Miller said.

Ideas brought up during the Taboo Talk included making the counseling center more visible and accessible to students, hosting workshops on how to help a friend or loved one through situations related to mental health, and even setting up mental health mixers with a laid-back atmosphere to make the conversation more approachable. Miller, who brought the ideas to the Counseling Center staff, hopes to implement some of the ideas within the current semester.