By Leah Jones, Features Editor

 

“I think that a lot of people, whenever they hear that someone has a mental illness, they [think], ‘Oh, I wonder what is wrong with you?’” says Anna McEntire, senior, business administration. While people are always confronted with these stereotypes, stigmas, and stories that other people want to tell about them, UMSL Voices seeks to undermine these labels by enabling University of Missouri–St. Louis students to tell their own stories.

On April 9, UMSL Fraternity and Sorority Life held its second annual UMSL Voices event at 7 p.m. in the J.C. Penney Auditorium to give students who have struggled with mental illness a platform from which to be heard. McEntire, a member of Alpha Xi Delta, and her friend Jessica Carson, senior, biology, pre-veterinary, tabled in the Millennium Student Center on April 5 to raise student awareness about not only the event but mental illness, depression, and suicide prevention.

Carson explained that though Greek Week was cut short, consisting of only three days this year, Greek life decided that UMSL Voices was an important event which they still wanted to hold.

The members of Greek life teamed up with Solid Lines Productions to put on the event. Solid Lines Productions spotlights social issues such as mental health through their performances and then attempts to engage its audiences through dialogue and commentary afterward. “Students that go to UMSL were able to share their stories [about their] mental health [struggles], and they [Solid Lines Productions] are going to put on a performance of those stories,” Carson said.

UMSL held two workshops prior to the performance to give students a chance to compose some of their stories. The first workshop had about 20 students, according to Carson. Though attendance was lower at the second workshop, with just four people attending the April 4 workshop, Carson said that that still meant that there were a lot of stories from which to choose at the event. Solid Lines Productions acted out the experiences about which the students wrote in these workshops. The act of storytelling, therefore, became a powerful tool for engaging audiences with experiences which audience members might not have had themselves.

McEntire spoke about how she thought that the acting would make the event more personal than just a simple reading of events. “I can sit here and tell you everything that I have been through, but I feel like it won’t make as big of an impact as if you are sitting and watching somebody act out the struggles that someone else had,” she said. “I think that the impact [of] the actual acting of it will be [more effective] than somebody just standing up there and telling their story because most of [the stories] are anonymous. We don’t know whose story it is at all. So the question of whose [story] it is is going to leave people in a lot more suspense and [encourage them to] think about a lot more.”

McEntire went on to talk about the importance of challenging the stigma around mental illness. “I feel really strongly about mental illness awareness and suicide prevention because I do know people and I have friends who have gone through it,” she said. “They didn’t realize how much everybody around them loved them. Mental illness runs in my family; depression and anxiety run in my family. So, I just really like to help people when I can.”

Carson said, “The whole goal behind this event is to let people know that they are not alone and that it is okay for them to be struggling through what they are struggling through—and that we are here to help.”

“I am really excited for [UMSL Voices] because I feel like mental health is something that is really common now, a lot more common than it used to be,” McEntire continued. “And I like that it is going to get people’s stories and struggles out there so that people know that just because somebody is smiling down the hall doesn’t meant that they are okay on the inside. They could be dealing with something huge, but we don’t know about it.”

According to a report released by the World Health Organization on March 30 of this year, McEntire is right: Rates of mental illness, specifically depression, are rising worldwide. According to the report, global rates of depression rose 18 percent from 2005 to 2015, with more than 300 million sufferers worldwide, making depression the leading cause of ill health and disability around the world. The report ends with a call for increased investment in mental health issues. However, the Trump administration’s recent budget blueprint calls for cutting funding from the National Institute of Health by $5.8 billion, or 20 percent, which would hinder investment in this growing issue.

Carson and McEntire hope that UMSL Voices will be one small step toward making this investment on UMSL’s campus. In addition to the UMSL Voices event, Carson spoke about Counseling Services’ “Ask, Listen, Refer” campaign, for which both women handed out brochures while tabling for the UMSL Voices event. The campaign helps to train people to identify those at risk for suicide by recognizing risk factors and warning signs and then giving people the tools to respond and get help for people who may be struggling. The training can be accessed online and takes about 20 minutes to complete.

“So you ask them what is going on in their life—and most of the time, people just want you to ask them—and then they will give you a response, you just listen to them, and you don’t try to provide advice or anything. Then you refer them to get help,” Carson explained.

According to the brochure, published by Partners in Prevention, a coalition of universities in Missouri, these changes in behavior that may indicate that a person might be struggling with depression do not necessarily have to be negative changes. Instead, the brochure lists diverse factors such as trouble concentrating, slowed thinking and indecisiveness, and pessimism, among others.

The brochure does not advocate for acting as a counselor. Instead, it says that concerned friends and family should ask, listen, and refer. Asking means directly asking a person how they feel, and acknowledging, not dismissing these feelings. However, the brochure says that it is important to convey that things can get better. Asking also will not plant the idea of suicide, or encourage them to go through with it. Next, the brochure advocates for genuine listening. It says that friends should not try to argue anyone out of suicide or use clichés about how much other people care in order to dissuade a person from suicide. Instead, friends can nonjudgmentally listen, provide support, and let the person know that their feelings are temporary and that they are not alone. Finally, the brochure advocates for encouraging the person to seek help from a professional, even though many suicidal people believe that they cannot be helped. Friends should not leave someone whom they believe to be in imminent and immediate danger of hurting themselves. Counseling services are free to UMSL students, who can reach out to Counseling Services at 131 Millennium Student Center, or via telephone at (314) 516-5711.

As McEntire pointed out, however, one of the problems with treating any mental illness is confronting the stigma around the diagnosis.

Though politicians and the media often paint people who struggle with mental illness as violent and unpredictable, only 3 to 5 percent of all violent acts can be attributed to individuals with serious mental illness according to mentalhealth.gov, meaning that the vast majority of violent offenses are committed by people without mental illness. Even more disturbingly, people with severe mental illnesses are ten times more likely than the general population to be a victim of violence. Despite these facts, many people struggling with mental illness may not seek help because of the stigma surrounding the diagnosis.

“We just wanted people to know that this program is here and that people can get the training that they need to be able to see the signs of depression and suicide … and that is why we are here,” Carson said.

While the two hoped that the event would disrupt and disturb stereotypes around mental illness, they also hope that other UMSL students will overcome any stigma that they have around greek life and attend the event. “I know there is stigma that [greek life] are all closed and tight, but we want people to be there. We don’t want people to just look at it and see that it is a greek life sponsored event and [not go].

McEntire agreed. “I think that it is something that people need to go to, more than should go to, because I think it will raise awareness,” she said.

Counseling services are offered at UMSL at 131 MSC. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and they can be reached by telephone at (314) 516-5711. The phones are answered after hours by clinical professionals for students who call outside of the office’s hours.

To complete UMSL’s “Ask, Listen, Refer” training, visit http://www.asklistenrefer.org/umsl

To read more about mental health myths, visit https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/myths-facts/

To read more about the proposed budget cuts to NIH, go to page 22 of https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/2018_blueprint.pdf