She has invested much of her past few years in mental health advocacy and activism. She helps foster spaces and organize events where people can speak about their mental illnesses. She lives with a mental illness herself and is comfortable with sharing her story.
Yet she prefers to remain anonymous.
“The stigma isn’t going to go away anytime soon,” she explains.
Heather* has struggled with an eating disorder for much of her life. She has had conversations about this topic with a few other students, but she avoids discussing it as a general rule.
“It’s easier to talk to people about anxiety, because that’s a general emotion people can feel in a number of ways,” Heather said. “It’s less difficult to imagine that one step further in the context of mental illness. But eating disorders are one of those things that people aren’t sure why they exist and what they are most of the time, and therefore they don’t know how to respond to them.” She also expressed that it’s “disproportionately” discussed less compared to other mental illnesses.
People involved in working towards a more inclusive environment for students with mental illness generally agree that Yale has improved in recent years. Sreeja Kodali ’18 and Emma Goodman ’19 are co-presidents of Mind Matters, an undergraduate mental health advocacy group. They point to the growth in the number of groups focused on mental health and the increase in students involved in them as positive signs.
Organizations such as Project LETS, a group for and by students with mental illness, and the Yale Layer, an undergraduate publication with an emphasis on mental health, have developed on campus in recent years to foment understanding and support for people with mental illness.
“It’s great because we can now coordinate different efforts among student groups,” Goodman explained. “One group can focus on awareness and another can focus on advocacy, and then another can work on education. We have the manpower to hit all these diverse and important areas.”
Another new group is Mental Health Educators. Hieronimus Loho ’18 founded it to promote awareness for first years, as he explained in an op-ed for the News earlier this month.
Throughout the year, Mental Health Educators will lead workshops that Loho describes as “moderated discussion[s].” He hopes they further reduce stigmas concerning mental health by familiarizing people with conversations about it.
While many agree about progress, they also admit that it has left some behind — as Heather said. While it is easy to celebrate events meant to support depression and anxiety, understanding the subtleties and range of mental health issues requires much greater understanding.
“One of the hard things about an eating disorder in college is that campus culture often revolves around food and drinking,” Heather explains. “That wasn’t something I had prepared myself for. There’s just a lot of things where I know it’s not intentional to be insensitive to eating disorders, but they exist here anyway, by the nature of college.”
Heather recognizes the importance of food at social events. This understanding, coupled with the lack thereof from the people around them, contributed to Heather’s silence.
Heather does not have experience talking about her eating disorder in general. She grew up in a family “that was never going to have that [mental health] conversation.” Because she was 17 when she started at college and would have to notify her parents about visiting a counselor, she did not seek help her first semester. She had to find ways to cope by herself: She developed strategies like attending events late, when food would be less of a focus.
While some parts of college inherently present obstacles to those with mental illness, Yale has attempted some institutional adjustments to address the growing demand and criticism. This Wednesday, Paul Genecin, director of Yale Health, announced the hire of four additional clinicians within Mental Health and Counseling, three of whom are psychiatrists.
Yet mental illness bears so many complexities that some other efforts, by the University and student groups alike, have only hindered support for students with illnesses.
The university has directed a general movement for wellness. This push seeks to offer students opportunities to practice healthy habits and connects students with events such as drop-in meditation hours around campus.
Many students appreciate the effort to support student health, but believe it ultimately may distract from the core of the issue.
Kodali acknowledged the importance of wellness and its use in mitigating some mental illness symptoms, but she also believes it ignores less mainstream mental health issues. While no single effort can address every aspect of mental health, she thinks “that push [for wellness] isn’t matched by discussion on other issues. Not all mental illnesses are depression and anxiety.”
Part of Mind Matter’s attempt to answer the gaps in the program, she said, was hosting a panel earlier this semester for people to discuss their experiences with eating disorders.
Heather feels similarly. Though the idea of wellness contributes to a healthier life, it doesn’t pertain to “mental illness as a biological disease that people have or address how best to cope with that on campus and what that can look like.”
Jaclyn Schess ’18 views the focus on wellness even more critically. She is involved with Mind Matters and has spoken on panels about dealing with depression and anxiety for most of her life.
She said that the wellness drive only maintains the stigmas surrounding mental health due to its lack of focus. Rather than support mental health, she thinks, it provides a euphemism for mental illness. According to her, she and others with mental illness feel “more shunned by it.”
While people think that the wellness mission is too broad and thus vague, they also find fault with certain criticism of Yale Mental Health and Counseling. They consider some of its negative reputation undeserved and dangerous.
Schess felt especially passionate about the issue.
“I’ve had huge problems with the way the YDN reports on mental illness,” she said. “I have found in my time here and reading past reports that the reporting is so skewed towards negative experience. The lack of balance creates a situation where people are literally scared to seek out help.”
She recognizes the importance of sharing stories, but she sees a dangerous disparity in the coverage of positive and negative accounts.
Others shared similar regrets about the Mental Health and Counseling’s negative reputation.
Kodali expressed concerns that some may consider it “trendy to bash the administration.” As a person who critically analyzes campus culture and resources herself, she emphasized the importance of basing criticism on “good will and good information.” To do otherwise is not only unproductive, but harmful, she explained, echoing Schess’s sentiments.
Goodman agreed, citing the popular misconception that there was a hard cap on therapy sessions. Heather also recognized the variety of resources for mental illness at Yale, but believed they were too scattered. She believes that students don’t know the full extent of the support system available. Everyone that contributed to this article agreed that communication between Mental Health and Counseling and students could better address this issue.
The complexities of mental health are such that each attempt to address some part of it poses a threat of damaging the situation further. Attempts to improve conversation may make conversation harder for others.
This difficulty is especially true for less discussed illnesses. Focusing on the reality of depression and anxiety is an important step in improving the climate around mental health, but it may also provide some with an excuse to delegitimize other issues. While people increasingly understand the importance of listening to peers suffering from mental illnesses, we still see an abundance of harmful practices. The casual, conversational use of terms like “obsessive-compulsive disorder” and “schizophrenia” evidences the work that remains to be done.
This story is a commentary in and of itself on the problem. Its lack of voices speaks perhaps louder than its content. You heard only two perspectives of lived experience. And only one of those voices came from someone with a less discussed mental illness. Even as this article seeks to contribute to the conversation, it may be failing in the same way the current conversation in. As a writer, I wish I had more stories to share. As a member of this community, I wish more people felt comfortable sharing them.
*name has been changed
Tommy Martin | firstname.lastname@example.org