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Concordia students, faculty host mental health panel

This year Concordia hosted its first Mental Health Awareness week that started Nov. 14.

A mental health panel made up of five students and two faculty members spoke from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Students shared their experiences with mental illness and the faculty also did this, but additionally offered another perspective about the relationships faculty have with students that have mental illnesses.

Moderator Julia Kohler asked questions and the panelists each answered the question from their own perspective.

Paula Guajardo, a senior, spoke about her experience with paranoid schizophrenia.

“It made it hard to interact the past few years,” Guajardo said. “It’s taken a toll on my academics as well.”

Guajardo talked about her difficulty concentrating when she has delusions.

“It makes it hard to pay attention to the professor or be social with friends,” Guajardo said. “It does become very isolating.”

Marah Evans, a senior, talked about her experience with anxiety and depression. She spoke specifically about how everybody’s diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression is different.

“Treatments are kind of like a combination lock,” Evans said.

Mikayla Clements, a sophomore, experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from when she heard the gunshot that killed one of her best friends who committed suicide in high school.

“PTSD comes in flares,” Clements said. “Some days are easier than others.”

Her friend committed suicide in the spring, so Clements said she usually experiences more flare-ups around that time of year.

“Sometimes you feel like you need to lock yourself in your room and not talk to anybody,” Clements said. “With PTSD you take it as it comes and you roll with the punches.”

Ciara Gideon, a senior, shared about how she spends about 80 percent of each day doing compulsions due to her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Her compulsions have to do with symmetry on her body.

She also explained that she has positive and negative ways of escaping her illness. Her negative escape is sleep because it keeps her from really dealing with her illness. On the other hand, her positive escape is being with friends.

Jacob Rose, a junior, spoke about his experience with Autism Spectrum Disorder; not otherwise specified.

“I think it’s important to recognize that autism symptoms vary so much from person to person,” Rose said.

Rose explained that in his case he struggles to relate to other people’s emotions.

“It never occurred to me that people apologize for a reason,” Rose said after telling a story about how during his childhood, he never understood apologies because he perceived them differently than others. When he was young, he thought that apologizing was only a formality and that people didn’t really mean anything by it.

Representing faculty were Dr. Erika Strandjord, assistant professor of English and Dr. Mallary Allen, assistant professor of sociology.

“Concordia is relatively open about mental illness,” Allen, who is in her third year of teaching at Concordia, said after seeing what some larger campuses have done.

“One thing that I always do is I try to express empathy,” Strandjord said.

During college Strandjord said she struggled with anorexia. This shapes the way she deals with her students, because she knows what it’s like dealing with mental illness in college. She spoke about how she didn’t talk to faculty or take use of disability services because she was afraid of the stigma.

“I think that the most stigma I see among students is self-stigma,” Strandjord said. “Working to fight that stigma that you give yourself is really important.”

Gideon said she experiences self- stigma the most.

“The hardest part with OCD is knowing your thoughts are irrational,” Gideon said. “The idea that I think I fight a lot is that getting help is okay. I felt as though using disability services would be letting my OCD win.”

However, Gideon now compares using disability services as a tool for success to using a tutor for a class as a tool.

Despite this, Strandjord explained she also sees a stigma among faculty regarding students with mental illness. She said she believes the problem here is a lack of understanding.

“Events like this where we’re open about our experiences is helpful,” Stranjord said.

Guajardo thinks there’s a very strong stigma associated with paranoid schizophrenia not just on cam- pus, but in the community as well. She said it is often associated with violence and negativity.

Evans has experienced many people assuming she is depressed all of the time if they are aware she has depression. She also notices people are reluctant to get help if they are not diagnosed yet due to a fear of stigma.

“’Not that bad yet’ isn’t a thing,” Evans said. “There’s no line of how severe it has to be before you can go see a counselor.”

Telling friends at Concordia was tough for Clements.

“I always wanted to be ok and I didn’t want people even for a second look at me in a different way,” Clements said.

Clements also refrained from telling her professors her first semester.

“Academically I didn’t do well my first semester,” Clements said. “I didn’t do very well because I didn’t tell my professors.”

Rose said one of the biggest problems regarding the stigma is that people don’t talk about their problems.

“It’s ok to be you to other people,” Rose said. “You’ll find that there’s a lot more acceptance than you might expect.”

The panelists all agreed that in order for the stigma to end there needs to be a better understanding about mental illness.

“I truly believe that stigma won’t end until mental illness is seen the same as physical illness,” Gideon said. “I truly believe it needs to be seen as the same thing.”

Many of the panelists commented on how they see Concordia making a good effort to reduce the stigma.

“This year I’ve seen tremendous change,” Clements said. “This is the first mental health awareness week. We’re getting that conversation started.”

However, Concordia does have to work towards eliminating the stigma.

“We need to destroy having the image of the happy cobber,” Strandjord said. She believes that the “Happy Cobber” image gives the illusion that everyone who goes to Concordia is happy all of the time. This could make students feel pressure to uphold an image that may not fit with them all of the time. Starting the conversation with Mental Health Awareness week is start- ing to break down this image.

“It was awful feeling like I was the only one who wasn’t happy all the time,” Evans said.

Ultimately, the panel provided a place for students and faculty to share and hear stories of other students, which was the purpose of the event.

“Overall it will be really great for the audience to learn about some- one they don’t know,” Natalie Rivera, president of Active Minds said before the event. “They’ll take a walk in their shoes.”

Active Minds is a student organization that works to host events that inform other students around cam- pus and that has the goal of removing the stigma of mental illness. The panel, and the entire week’s purpose was to bring the topic of mental health to the surface at Concordia, Rivera said.

Along with the panel, the week was filled with other events and each day had a main focus.

“We planned a lot of different activities each day by partnering with a bunch of student organizations,” Rivera said. “Each day we’ve worked really hard to have a different theme and event so people think they relate in some way.”

Rachael Schauer, president of SGA, said she hopes mental health awareness continues to be a priority on campus after Mental Health Awareness Week.

“We’re working towards eliminating the stigma,” Rivera said. “The only way to do that is to be informed.”

In the long term, Rivera would like to see an environment where mental health matters and is understood. In the short term, the goal is to just touch someone every day Rivera said.

“People don’t really understand how prevalent [mental illness] is,” Schauer said.

Rivera and Schauer agree that mental health is much more common than people may expect.

“It’s important because it affects everyone,” Rivera said. “Most of the time you might not see the demons people are dealing with, but they’re still there.”

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