This week, students are being exposed to a topic that many say lies far too often in the shadows of public debate: mental health.

Mind Matters, an undergraduate mental health education and awareness organization, is sponsoring Mental Health Awareness Week to highlight the issue. The event is part of the group’s broader campaign to educate Yale students about mental health and help make students more comfortable talking about mental illness, co-organizer Lekshmi Santhosh ’07 said

“Mental illness is still a very stigmatized issue, even in an educated place like Yale,” she said. “The importance [of the week’s events] is to let people know that everyone knows someone with some sort of mental illness.”

The issue affects more students than might be expected. According to Santhosh, more than one-fourth of all college-aged people have a mental illness. She stressed that mental illness is a broad term, not limited to disorders like schizophrenia, but one that also includes more common ones like depression and anxiety.

The effects of mental illness can be deadly. According to statistics compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the third leading cause of death among people 15-24 years old. Statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention show that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. Of those college students who do commit suicide, over 90 percent have suffered from a mental illness of some sort, especially depression. College students are particularly at risk, Santhosh said, because of how stressful their environment is.

The week of events kicked off Jan. 15 with a benefit concert at the Afro-American Cultural House. Santhosh said the money collected — about $100 — will be given to Fellowship Place, a local community mental health center. She said she was pleased with the turnout and the amount of donations, considering that it rained Sunday night and the suggested donation was only $2-3.

Beginning Monday and continuing through Thursday, members of Mind Matters will be posted at tables outside various dining halls during dinner. Students passing by are invited to share their thoughts about mental illness. Santhosh said the variety in the responses has been interesting.

“One wrote, ‘The most vibrant person I know has a mental illness,'” she said. “A lot wrote about relatives.”

The responses, written on Post-It notes, are put on large puzzle pieces, which will be assembled together on Friday. Santhosh, who was present at the table at Silliman College Monday night, said the puzzle piece there was covered with hundreds of responses.

A visit to the table outside Branford’s dining hall revealed the same array of responses, ranging from “I have a mental illness,” to “No shame,” to “My amazing best friend has a mental illness.” The Mind Matters member there, Rachel Denison ’06, said she became involved in Mind Matters initially because she is a cognitive science major and is interested in the brain. Soon after joining, a more personal reason to be involved became apparent.

“A family member was diagnosed with a mental illness,” she said. “The Awareness Week is important to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. It makes for a big show of support.”

Another event will be held tonight, a screening in the Branford TV room of the movie “Requiem for a Dream,” followed by a discussion of the film’s depiction of drug addiction.

The culminating activity will be on Friday, when all the puzzle pieces with student responses will be joined together in the shape of a “Y” outside Commons. The student perspectives will be joined on Friday by artwork by Fellowship Place members.

Student reaction to the event seemed positive.

“It’s pushing a good cause,” said Nilesh Vashee ’09, who was leaving the Branford Dining Hall. “They are things people want to talk about but are afraid to with peers.”

But some students said the event was just a start.

“It’s the first event I’ve seen,” Vashee said. “I kind of want to see more.”

Mind Matters, which has 20 to 30 active members, hosted a similar event earlier this year. The week then coincided with National Mental Illness Awareness Week, which is in early October. This year’s event was not held in October, Santhosh said, so that the group could attend a national conference held then to hear ideas for the week’s activities.

Mind Matters focuses on three major activities, Santhosh said. As community service, members of the organization go to Fellowship Place one Monday night per month to do arts and crafts and play games with members of the health center. The group also works to raise awareness about mental health services at Yale and collaborates with the Yale University Health Services Mental Hygiene Department.

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