Panel launches Assembly’s mental health campaign

by Lucia McGloin | 9/30/14 6:40pm

Students shared their experiences with depression, alcoholism and anxiety at a panel last night that marked the launch of Student Assembly’s yearlong “I’m Here for You” campaign. The initiative, which organizers said aims to break the silence surrounding mental illness and inform students about available resources, continues Wednesday with an event inviting students to pledge their support.

Student body president Casey Dennis ’15 and vice president Frank Cunningham ’16 conceived the event last spring. They said they were startled after reading statistics about the prevalence of mental illness, and decided to introduce and highlight mental health on this year’s agenda.

The yearlong initiative includes visiting speakers, a depression-screening day, eating disorder clinics and access to Dick’s House counselors during finals. Student Assembly introduced the option of depression screening to all routine Dick’s House appointments, Dennis and Cunningham said, noting that Assembly members hope also to ensure existing counseling facilities have adequate resources, can handle an influx of students and can minimize wait time for counseling appointments.

Dennis and Cunningham said they observed that the high-achieving campus atmosphere alienates individuals who feel the competing pressures of schoolwork, extracurricular activities and socializing.

According a 2012 report by the American College Health Association, 31 percent of college students nationwide report depression that impairs their ability to function, and more than 50 percent report overwhelming anxiety. This same assessment cites depression and anxiety as among the top impediments to academic performance.

The Assembly hopes to destigmatize mental illness through the camaign, which aims to raise awareness about and improve existing resources on campus.

“It is during your loneliest hour that you really feel like no one is there for you,” Cunningham said on the campaign’s title.

At the panel, which was co-sponsored by Active Minds and Dartmouth on Purpose, seven students shared their exposure to mental illness with an audience of around 100 people.

Panelist Zoe Brennan ’16 shared her encounter with depression, which she said surfaced prominently at Dartmouth. Brennan, who was evaluated and treated at Dick’s House, said she struggled to share her depression with her peers, silenced by the stigma that surrounds mental health even when she was healthy.

“I didn’t want my teammates or coaches to think I was weak,” Brennan said.

Another panelist, a female member of the Class of 2016 who requested anonymity due to the personal nature of her story, shared her experience with a manic episode during her sophomore summer, which included sleeplessness and feeling extremely confident.

“Accepting that I needed help was the most difficult thing,” she said. “It’s important that we take care of our mental health because it’s often something we take for granted.”

Speight Carr ’16, a panelist who is also an Assembly campaign director, said that mental illness affects friends and family of those it touches. Carr said he has never been more proud of his family than when his sister and father asked for help.

Sometimes “all we have to do is provide a little nudge in the right direction,” he said, encouraging others to support peers who may struggle with mental health problems.

Audience members interviewed reacted positively to the panel.

Simone Smith ’15 said she was inspired by the turnout.

“This type of event where people come and tell their stories makes it much more concrete that there are people out there who are also suffering from something, and that they are available and open to talk,” Smith said.

Meredith Geaghan-Breiner ’17 said the panel highlights the importance of opening a community dialogue around mental health issues.

Cunningham shared his own experience with depression and chronic anxiety at the event, which climaxed last spring at the College. The Assembly also released a video last night to the campus community featuring Cunningham’s personal story.

The large turnout is an indicator of interest in the topic, he said.

“Two terms ago I was in my darkest times,” Cunningham said, “and now I am standing here talking about it.”