Actively Destigmatizing the Discussion about Mental Health

Filled with roaring laughter, incessant cheering, and huge applauses- it seemed more like a YU Macs pep rally than anything else.  Maybe a Purim Shpiel or a YCDS comedy production, but surely not expected from an event discussing mental health in the Modern Orthodox college community.  Free dinner from Carlos and Gabby’s often draws a big crowd to an event, especially when caf cards are running low.  But the event– “Break the Stigma”– run by Active Minds at Yeshiva University, drew over 200 students and demonstrated that the YU community clearly cares about supporting their fellow students in the attempt to destigmatize mental health.

President of Active Minds, Orly Benaderet, opened the event with a personal story about two family members who suffered from mental illness and her own account of seeking counseling after an accident this past winter.  She expressed the sentiment that she feels inspired by those who are able to confront their problems and speak about them in an open forum.  “People are hesitant to talk about their problems because they are afraid of judgment by others. But not tonight,” she said.

“I’m glad I’m not talking about an anxiety disorder,” joked Yitzi Diskind, Vice President of Active Minds, from the front podium.  “Because otherwise, I would be freaking out with the amount of people here! What a big turnout!”  Calling the event a “free therapy session,” Diskind told the riveted crowd about what it was like to be diagnosed with clinical depression in 11th grade and dealing with it throughout college.  He also mentioned that he felt discriminated against by a Rabbi from a school in Israel because of his mental illness history.  About that encounter, he echoed exactly what the event was meant to accomplish: “Why should anyone be treated differently?”

Akiva Weisinger described a similar situation in which he felt he was treated unfairly by a school in Israel because they were hesitant to accept him due to his Asperger’s Syndrome.  Weisinger humorously and candidly explained the experiences he has had, and ended every story with, “but I can get away with that. I have Asperger’s.” Yet through his anecdotes about being a kid interviewed by psychology panels and looking up foods on Wikipedia, he mentioned on a more serious note that struggling with mental health is a constant battle, but it does not have to be totally dismissed in order for him to be happy. “I don’t think that life is like a movie with a beginning, middle and end.  Part of life is struggle. You don’t win, you just keep the forces at bay long enough to survive.  It’s not all about overcoming.  And that’s OK.”

“Many people see mental health as something that is toxic and [therefore] not spoken about,” began one Stern student who prefers to remain anonymous, as she described a particular type of eating disorder that many have never heard of before.  EDNOS, or “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified,” has affected her for the past five years.  Her first time telling her story in public, she acknowledged that she can take what she learned personally “to show others that they are not alone and they too can confront their demons.”

While there have been numerous public service campaigns over the past decade to minimize the stigma of mental health issues, shame still persists among those who are suffering.  Many feel ostracized, invisible, and powerless when struggling with mental health, and the stigma ultimately prevents many from seeking the help needed.  Outsiders often feel they cannot relate to those who have mental health issues and that they are too unstable to be really be accepted.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), statistics show that one in every four adults- approximately 57.7 million Americans- experience a mental health disorder in a given year.  However, one in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder, one half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14, and three-quarters by age 24.  A survey conducted by NIMH shows that an overwhelming majority, 64% of survey respondents, said they are no longer attending college because of a mental health related reason.  Clearly, mental health is something that should be confronted head-on in the college community.  Intervention early on for those that are suffering and learning acceptance for those that aren’t, is essential to those suffering and just as essential for others to understand.

The Jewish community is not immune to mental health issues and it is just as prevalent as in any circles.  Quite possibly, overcoming mental health in addition to stigma towards it is even harder in Jewish circles because of the intersocietal expectations, high standards of achievement, and the desire to be resilient to struggle.

One effective way to combat stigma for both those suffering and those that aren’t is for those with mental health issues to share their stories and find those others that really do care to listen.  In an honest forum, when both sides make the effort to prove that they can understand each other despite the stereotypes and misconceptions, can build tolerance and trust.  As Alison Malmon, Founder and Executive Director of Active Minds, a national organization that promotes discussion of mental health on college campuses says, “We don’t all have mental illness, but we all have mental health.”

Active Minds at YU achieved that feeling of a two-way street at their event.  Open, real, raw, and oftentimes downright comical, four students spoke about the ups and downs of dealing with mental illness.  The goal of the event was to try and remove some of the stigma associated with mental health issues, and to educate the audience in how they should either cope with, or react to, those same issues. Therefore, the event was designed to present the facts in a more tangible way that hits closer to home.  Yitzi Diskind, Senior at YC, Vice President of Active Minds, and first speaker of the night says, “The fact that the speakers were not professional speakers but friends, neighbors, and classmates made it so that the speeches carried a lot more emotional weight behind them.” He added that “many of the questions [during the Q&A session] were asking for advice about how to cope with one’s own mental health issues, as well as how to interact with and help someone else who is suffering from mental health issues.”

NIMH reports that fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children with diagnosable mental disorders receive mental health services.  Each presenter at the event stressed the importance of seeking counseling.  A senior at Stern who prefers to remain anonymous emphasized the tremendous benefit of the Counseling Center at YU. “It was incredibly hard to make myself go because of the stigma that ‘I’m crazy, I’m never going to be normal,’” she mentioned at the end of her presentation.  “I did it because I knew I had to, but later I was the happiest I have ever been.”

The turnout was one of the largest of any events on campus this semester and was extremely well received by students. Additionally, members of the Active Minds board have been receiving numerous emails, Facebook messages, and comments from people who identified with the event and have said that they gained tremendously.  Psychology major Akiva Leidner wasn’t expecting people to open up as much as they did.  “People already know about all the clinical aspects [of mental health].  This was a chance for people to open up about themselves and serve as role models.  I was happy to be there to support them.”

Is it possible that with so many on board to destigmatize mental health, there is still a large segment of the community that is uneasy discussing the issues?   While the crowd was large, there was obviously still a number of students that did not attend the event and some felt that many are apprehensive to attend event like this one.  “The people who come to the event are the people who care or have friends who are struggling,” suggests Tamar Berger.  “Everyone knows at least 1 person that is suffering, but if it doesn’t hit home, they may not have come.”

This event was not meant to be a quick fix to destigmatize mental health issues in the YU community.  This final event by Active Minds was exceptional in that it represented a diverse lineup of mental health issues.  However, throughout the year, the club has held events that focused on various mental health issues including eating disorders, seasonal affective disorder, and general stress.  Benaderet laments that unfortunately, it sometimes takes larger events like this to make people aware that Active Minds is on campus and this is not their first event.  “Hopefully, this message will continue to spread,” she says. “People will learn that seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.” Having Active Minds on campus, whose goal is to “destigmatize mental health disorders by promoting open, enlightened discussion of mental health and to create a better life for all who suffer,” capitalizes on the energy and dedication of young adults to fight the stigma through education, enlightenment, and empowerment. While Active Minds is a nationwide campus initiative, specifically the Active Minds chapter at YU is unique in that it integrates faith into its events.  They are also a five star chapter, the highest ranking a chapter can achieve because of the qualitative and quantitative events.

“When we add ‘we’ to illness,” mentioned Diskind before receiving a standing ovation, “we get wellness.  No one should look at another differently because of mental illness.”