BYU students aim to end the stigma about mental illness

Spencer Waters, a junior at BYU and one of the co-presidents of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, visits the NAMI official website. Waters said the club’s goal is to reduce the stigma of mental illness on campus. (Natalie Bothwell)

Lauren Leininger came to BYU with the hope of being surrounded by friends who shared her values and beliefs. Instead, the Texas native privately struggled with a hidden problem as she worked through her courses: anxiety.

“Even though I felt pretty safe surrounded by people of the same faith and ideals, I was still uncomfortable and uneasy, and I felt like I needed to hide it,” Leininger said. “Everyone seems so outgoing and comfortable. Dealing with it is kind of lonely because not a lot of people are open about mental health stress or issues,” Leininger said.

Though Leininger might have felt alone in her struggles, she is not. An estimated 26 percent of BYU students experience some symptoms of depression during their time at the university.

While BYU offers certain resources to students who suffer from mental illness, not all of these students take advantage of what’s available. Some students don’t know how to seek help or feel uncomfortable doing so.

Leininger said she only learned about the resources BYU offers to students through a friend and chose not to seek help because that friend had a bad experience with the counseling services.

“Impressions are important, especially for people seeking comfort,” Leininger said.

Leininger said the students and faculty at BYU can help students who are struggling with mental illness by being more open about mental illness.

“I believe I hid it on campus because I felt it was burdensome to let others know and because there wasn’t a group or place to express how I felt,” Leininger said. “Anxiety and other mental health issues in the campus culture are still treated as something shameful, and it shouldn’t be. I think a lot of people would benefit from just being able to tell someone or see that others have the same struggle.”

BYU hosts a National Alliance of Mental Illness club on campus. The clubs’ aim is to end the stigma that surrounds mental illness. BYU offers multiple resources for students who need help with mental illness. (Universe Photo)

One of the resources offered to students who struggle with mental or emotional health is the University Accessibility Center. Students who struggle with mental illness to the point that it affects their academic abilities can go to the University Accessibility Center to receive special accommodations to meet their needs. GeriLynn Vorkink, Ph.D., the director of BYU’s Accessibility Center, said students who suffer from mental illness are eligible to receive special accommodations — the same way that students with physical limitations do.

Vorkink said the accommodations that students with mental illness receive are made on a case-by-case basis. Examples of this include leniency for absences, extra time on exams or note-takers and audio-recorded lectures. These accommodations can help students with depression and anxiety, or students who suffer from trauma or have difficulty focusing.

“Over the past five years, an average of 350 students per year have received accommodations for mental illnesses (or what we typically call emotional disabilities),” Vorkink said in an email. “Students with emotional disabilities currently account for 44 percent of all the clients we see.”

Another resource offered to students is BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services. Jennie Bingham, Ph.D., one of the psychologists for the center, said students who visit the center can be assured the counseling is confidential.

The center often counsels students who are suffering from depression, stress and anxiety, but the counselors can also treat students who are suffering from other problems such as eating disorders or trauma.

Bingham said students can overcome the stigma of mental illness by educating themselves on mental health concerns. Practice being genuine, and resist the pressure to appear continually happy, she said.

“…Sometimes I think, especially in our culture, we get mental health and spiritual health mixed up,” Bingham said. “I think often people become worried that if they are depressed or anxious or really overwhelmed that somehow it’s a sign of lack of faith. I think learning about the differences between mental health and spiritual concerns can be really helpful, to know that anxiety and depression are not a result of a character weakness, that there are very real psycho, social and biological underpinnings and that talking about it helps.”

For the students who feel more comfortable receiving support from their peers, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is a club available on BYU’s campus. Because the organization involves peer support, it can be less intimidating to students who struggle with the stigma of mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness holds an academic forum at least once a semester and holds weekly support groups.

Spencer Waters, a junior from Virginia who is majoring in psychology and neuroscience, is one of the co-presidents of BYU’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Waters said one of the club’s aims is to reduce the stigma of mental illness for students on campus. The club includes peer support facilitators trained by the national branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness who have strong personal connections with mental illness.

Waters, who has struggled with mental illness himself, said the biggest part of the club’s mission is to let students who struggle with mental illness know they are not alone.

“Mental illness doesn’t make you any less of a person,” Waters said. “It doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It doesn’t mean you’re weird. It just means you’re going through illnesses like diabetes or cancer, and you can help treat that through therapy or through medication or through a wide variety of options. Above all else, there is hope. Even if you are feeling like you are in the depths of despair, there’s always hope.”

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