Students urge open mental health discourse

By PETER JI
For The News-Letter

Mental health is an issue on campuses around America, including Hopkins’. The University has attempted to create a more supportive environment surrounding mental health, providing various resources for students. However, some feel that there is room for improvement.

This conversation was spurred on-campus in part by former SGA Executive President Jason Plush, who recently resigned from his position.

Sophomore Hansel Romero believes mental illness needs a greater public presence and cites Plush’s impact.

“The topics themselves need to be personalized and made accessible to those who want to know more about [mental illnesses],” Romero said. “For instance, Jason put a face onto mental illness—a face that people need to see or hear about. I think instances like that make mental illness much more in the public eye, whereas they are now considered something to be dealt with on a private or personal basis.”

Active Minds president and sophomore John Hughes feels that the administration and the Hopkins community are headed in the right direction. However, the stigma associated with mental illness often makes it difficult for students to openly speak to friends or family about their problems. Students may choose not to seek help because they fear that they may be viewed differently. His group, a chapter of the national organization Active Minds, has been operating at Hopkins for three years and has begun tackling this issue.

“I don’t think that Hopkins students’ attitudes toward mental health are more or less stigmatic than the general population, but the general baseline stigma that exists is pretty significant,” Hughes said.

To alter the stigmas associated with mental illness, Hughes spoke about looking beyond resources the University provides such as the Counseling Center and the Sexual Assault Response Unit (SARU). Hughes wants to focus on making the Hopkins community a more open place for people to express their mental and emotional concerns, instead of treating people with those struggles in a different way.

“Our goal is to change the perception of mental health at Hopkins in a positive direction,” Hughes said. “We do this through advocacy and outreach to the student body, positivity around mental health, awareness about mental health disorders and also just breaking down the stigma through things like speakers.”

He also mentioned specific policies that would achieve these goals such as reaching out to orientation to try to get programming for next fall. They also plan on reaching out to student publications and potentially the SGA to discuss standards for journalistic reporting on mental health.

Hughes also emphasized the importance of listening in general to other people talk about their experiences.

“One of the things that we do is every semester we have a panel where we have students who have a range of mental health disorders from depression, autism, eating disorders and PTSD,” he said. “We have them come and share their stories with Hopkins students and have them answer questions. The purpose of these events is to communicate to people that mental health deeply affects people but does not define them.”

Senior Yonis Hassan is co-director of A Place to Talk (APTT), a Hopkins service for private discussion. APTT, which has existed for 30 years, is open to students during the semester from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, at their locations in AMR I and Wolman.

Hassan thinks that students’ understanding about mental health is similar to attitudes that prevail off campus.

“I feel like students here aren’t much different from American culture in general,” he said. “I generally get the feeling that Hopkins as an institution is definitely stressful for a multitude of reasons, classwork being one. And the social infrastructure of the whole school can make students feel like they are not supported, whether they are racial minorities, LGBTQ, women… That also contributes to mental health at Hopkins.”

Mental wellness depends on issues that stem from interactions with various communities off campus and around the world. Hassan touched on social institutions of mental health.

“I think that the way people talk about mental health in the mainstream don’t really understand the social institutions behind mental health,” he said. “For example, the experiences of being black, Latino, Asian, LGBTQ, a woman — and many other social categories that can also intersect in a multitude of ways — gives people of these backgrounds unique needs and leads them to endure unique struggles that must be brought to light in order to provide the proper mental health care that we all deserve.”

APTT “dens” are staffed by students who are specially trained in mental health first aid. Junior Katya Forbes and senior Mahima Sukumar, who staff the AMR I location, said that listeners truly enjoy their work.

“Our goal is to help people come up with their own solutions,” Forbes said. “We are a private listening service. People can come to us for any concerns they have, from roommate conflicts or things more serious. Basically anything on their minds.”

One way to promote mental health at Hopkins is to create a culture based off of positive communication. Forbes and Sukumar felt that by joining APTT they help to improve the Hopkins community.

Both expressed that places that provide support like APTT are overlooked, especially by upperclassmen. They said that they become busier around finals week, while more freshmen come to talk throughout the semester.

Hassan says that APTT strives to ensure that students get the right level of help they need, from a simple talk to more serious attention.

“We want to be the most inclusive mental health support system that we can be,” he said.

Hansel Romero feels that having the Hopkins community view mental illness as a normal part of life will help victims feel more capable of expressing themselves both in terms of and beyond their mental illness.

“Some people assume that people with mental illness are sensitive to those topics, but it is certainly another one of those things that you can compare to physical illness,” Romero said. “If it’s something so important to you that you make it a part of everyday life, there comes a point where the victim will be able to talk about it or represent themselves through it, just as much as for any other disease that might afflict them.”

Counseling Center Director Matthew Torres explained the Center’s different initiatives designed to help students who are struggling with mental health issues. He spoke to students’s general feelings toward how Hopkins handles mental health.

“Based on my years at Hopkins, I believe that many faculty and staff are highly invested in the health and well-being of the students. I have had many conversations with faculty and administrators who have worked hard to figure out how to best help a student who might be struggling with mental health issues,” Torres wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “We continue to engage with faculty, staff, coaches and students as we define a community of care.

“Concerning the Counseling Center,” he continued, “I am happy to say that students who have utilized Counseling Center services provide overwhelmingly positive feedback about their experiences.”

Torres also commented on how college life can exacerbate stress and said that in light of the events with SGA, the Counseling Center as well as President Daniels are committed to combatting mental health issues on campus.

“We understand that the college experience can be a stressful one,” Torres wrote. “I believe that Johns Hopkins recognizes this and has committed significant resources to the effort to help.”

Like Plush, Romero also began to prioritize his emotional health more by going on Facebook and coming out with his recent struggles with depression and anxiety. He thinks that the rigors of life at Hopkins does not require students to overlook their own well-being.

“At Hopkins, a lot of the time, people put their best face forward because that is what they are pressured to do here, and any sign of weakness is thought of as a weakness,” Romero said. “The fact that I struggled with mental illness doesn’t make me any less resilient or strong. It affects the way I go about my daily life, and that’s okay.”

Many students found that although the administration does a good job serving those seeking help, they find that it can do more to advertise its services.

Sophomore Kyra Meko came to the Counseling Center only once she heard about it from a friend.

“I’ve had very good experiences with the Counseling Center, but the only thing is it is hard to get an appointment in a timely manner,” she said. “But the procedure of going there and talking to the counselors is great. I think the administration does a good job, but they’re not very vocal about it. I think they should promote the Counseling Center as a resource and promote mental health as an issue more.”

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