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Mental health stigma hinders healing


During one of my few short breaks in a schedule cluttered with classes, meetings and rehearsal, I headed down to St. Olaf Avenue. After glancing back to make sure no one was watching, I quickly scurried up the sidewalk and into one particular beige building. My destination? Boe House.

Home to St. Olaf’s Counseling Center, Boe House’s conspicuous outpost among the honor houses intimidates many who walk through its doors. Once inside, I learned from a staff member that a discreet back entrance had been installed for this very reason.

A common attitude prevails among St. Olaf students that mental health problems are something that happens to other people. Oles like to keep up the appearance that life is perfectly fine beneath countless layers of classes, extracurriculars and internships, but a brief trip to Boe House proves this objectively untrue.

According to Counseling Center Director Steve O’Neill, 16 percent of St. Olaf students used Counseling Center services last year. Of last year’s graduating class, 41 percent used Counseling Center services during their time on the Hill. The current waiting period for an initial appointment is two to three weeks. If you haven’t needed counseling, chances are that many of your friends have.

Depression and anxiety have emerged as the leading mental health problems on U.S. college campuses. At least 50 percent of St. Olaf students seeking help from the Boe House come for these issues.

The prevalence of anxiety and depression is unsurprising, given the high-stress environment Oles live in. We are high achievers surrounded by equally talented people in a constant competition. Not to mention the stress of facing a grim job market after graduation and feeling pressured to know exactly what we’re doing with our lives by the time we get there.

At the same time, anxiety and depression only constitute half of the mental problems facing Oles today. There is an entire world of mental health issues out there, all of them grossly misunderstood.

Society often lumps the mentally ill into one “crazy” category rather than attempting to understand their conditions at a deeper level. As some Oles have pointed out, we saw this unfortunate stereotype manifest itself in the naming of the “Ellsylum,” which invoked the tired Halloween trope of the tortured mental patient.

While I like to think Oles are more educated on the topic than the general public, many of us still lack a basic understanding of what mental health is and refuse to acknowledge that many of our peers suffer through these problems on a daily basis. This attitude only serves to harm students who may need help but are ashamed to seek it.

Mental illness is as serious as any physical ailment. Health professionals often treat it with medications like they would a visible injury, but the intangibility of most mental conditions leads some to question their existence. Mental illness’ insidious nature poses a hurdle for sufferers that is easily defeated if the rest of us can be knowledgeable enough to help them jump over it.

Each person’s experience with mental health problems like anxiety and depression is unique, and the problems can stem from genetics or environmental factors. None of these conditions reflect a weakness or character flaw on the part of the sufferer.

O’Neill said he has observed a softening of mental health stigma on campus over time, but it still remains present. We should not allow our misunderstandings to make our peers feel the need to sneak around before seeing a therapist.

The most important thing those of us who have never made that long walk to Boe House can do is educate ourselves and lend our classmates support when they need it most. Then, if we come to terms with mental health’s relevance for everyone on campus, maybe we can all start using the front door.

News Editor Kate Fridley is from Apple Valley, Minn. She majors in political science with concentrations in Middle Eastern studies and management studies.