Mental healthcare is a growing global health concern. Ashley Cooper, president of FIMRC’s Harvard chapter, shares how she is helping to raise awareness both on college campuses and around the world to remove the stigma often associated with mental health challenges. Ashley is a sophomore jointly majoring in Neuroscience and Social Anthropology with a secondary in Theatre, Dance and Media.
On World Mental Health Day, recognized annually on October 10, I had the honor of leading a Harvard FIMRC advocacy event entitled “Global Mental Health Day 2018,” in co-sponsorship with the Harvard Student Mental Health Liaisons and Students in Mental Health Research on campus. At the event, we championed mental healthcare and equity worldwide, including promoting mental health and self-care on our own campus. Our event featured an interactive gratitude board, a solidarity poster board, handouts to foster self-care in the campus community, educational pamphlets on global mental health and prizes (including free stickers).
Conceptualizing and making this event a reality has been a passion project of mine for quite a while. Ever since joining FIMRC during my freshman year, I have envisioned our chapter doing more to bring mental health to the forefront of our conversations regarding pediatric, maternal and family healthcare.
So often when we speak of the abstract concept of “global health” the instilled cultural conceptions that come to mind are solely those of physical ailments, but mental health is equally important. According to WHO researchers, mental disorders are the primary cause of disability around the world. Further, mental illness and physical illness are intrinsically linked. In spite of this relationship, mental health care has only recently gained traction as a global health issue. By failing to mention mental health concerns we effectively erase the real pain and trauma experienced by millions of people across the globe suffering from mental health conditions.
This lack of discussion can lead to stigma and other disparaging attitudes towards the topic of “mental illness,” which make those struggling with mental health concerns reluctant to reach out for support. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional, often due to stigma, discrimination and neglect. In developing countries, estimates for untreated serious mental health disorders range from 75-85 percent in part due to the large shortages of psychiatrists in low-income countries with a ratio of 0.005 psychiatrists per 100,000 people.
By neglecting to discuss these issues, we are fostering a dangerous culture of stigma which feeds into the lack of psychiatric resources offered in low- and middle-income countries in particular. It is imperative that we all maintain an intersectional perspective and work to ensure that global equity in mental healthcare and services becomes offered worldwide.
As our mission was two-pronged, we also spent much of the event acknowledging the current crisis in regard to the mental health of students on college campuses. Many college students feel like they need to overcommit or over-work themselves and stay up studying all night in order to be successful. It almost becomes a game of who can handle the most pressure and stress without cracking.
This toxic attitude towards self-care vastly invalidates students who are experiencing mental health concerns on campus. Students begin to think: “if this person is handling all of their stress and responsibilities with such grace, what I’m experiencing means nothing, and my emotions are not worthy of even being discussed.” When we normalize this culture, students can form a dangerous association: that mental well-being and self-care must be sacrificed in order to succeed in college.
We hoped to revert this disturbing culture towards mental health by sharing pamphlets and providing interactive boards where students could write appreciation notes and add them to an accumulating sign of student-written messages of thankfulness, in solidarity. This seemingly simple task can be impactful to a student because it forces them to take a moment within all of the chaos, to slow down, regain a sense of self and reflect on some positives and constants that have persisted despite all of their stress. This is so essential because stress is a surmounting experience which can often feel all-consuming so in a way writing this one “appreciative note” down is a cathartic vehicle through which students can release that stress.
As a final touch at the end of our presentation, we told students: “Take care of your mental health, today and every day.” Though this sentiment may at first glance sound cliche, it actually resonated with several students. It is not a phrase that we often think about when “grinding through work” or just trying to persevere through our many commitments, even if that means sacrificing our own well being.
Seeing the genuine smiles on students faces as we told them that their mental health matters today and every day was an experience unparalleled to anything I have ever done in my life and it filled me with intense joy. Many students were shocked by the statement, which reaffirms how important it is to acknowledge mental health challenges.
After hosting this event, I am even more committed to bringing these issues to light. It is so pivotal that the conversation about mental health is sustained at Harvard and I am eager to continue fighting for mental health equity worldwide and on college campuses throughout the nation.