Farkas: A call to reframe how we discuss mental health at NU

Alana Farkas, Columnist

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Picture this: A friend notices a suspicious lump on their body, and although they fear the diagnosis, they consult with a doctor. Now imagine this mysterious lump turns out to be cancer, and your friend decides to pursue months of chemotherapy to fight for their life. Would you judge them? Would you think of this friend as weak?

Now imagine your friend has been experiencing frequent panic attacks. Although they fear the diagnosis, they consult with a psychologist. After learning that their panic attacks are a symptom of an anxiety disorder, your friend pursues treatment including cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. Would you judge them? Is your friend weak?

Though we are usually capable of empathizing with a person who battles physical illness, it is far more common that we judge and stigmatize those struggling with mental health. And at a university as stressful and rigorous as Northwestern, taking care of our mental health and that of our peers is vital to a successful and healthy student experience.

Many resources on campus encourage students to sustain their mental health, including Counseling and Psychological Services’ “Let’s Talk” program and the mental health True Northwestern Dialogue for incoming freshmen and transfer students. Although NU regularly reinforces messages that encourage students to seek resources for mental health care, our campus still has a strong stigma surrounding mental health and students who seek treatment. This stigma can have dangerous consequences. Many students still do not reach out when they are struggling or get the treatment they need for fear of judgement by peers or family. NU students should support those who undergo treatment in an encouraging, not shaming, manner.

I have observed both active and passive ways in which NU students highlight an element of shame surrounding mental health. I’ve heard students use derogatory language to discuss fellow students and peers struggling with mental illness, but I’ve also witnessed a passive and often overlooked problem on our campus: silence.

A lack of discussion about the normalcy of asking for help can feel just as bad as intolerance. If you suspect a friend may be struggling with mental health, staying silent and might be more harmful than beneficial –– even if they are not doing so verbally, your friend may be crying for help through their behavior. For example, depression often includes a wide range of symptoms aside from just sadness or changing mood. Students may experience changes in eating and sleeping patterns, restlessness, irritability and even physical symptoms like cramps and aches. Although our peers might not express that they experience depression, we should still be on the lookout for signs.

Reaching out to friends who exhibit these and other symptoms can be one way to speak up and support friends who might need help. It is our responsibility to look out for fellow NU students even if we are worried doing so may result in awkwardness or discomfort.

As someone who has asked and utilized support for mental health, my friends’ initial avoidance of any conversation with me about the topic felt like shaming. Even if I would bring up my experience, some friends would dodge the conversation and change the subject. It’s understandable that an individual may choose not to speak about mental health with a friend out of respect for that person’s privacy, and I soon learned my friends remained quiet about my coping process for that reason exactly. But when I invited them to speak about it with me, I found talking to them — even just answering their questions — helped make my process feel much less shameful. Validating my process and removing my experience from the silent and unspoken was an important moment for me and could be for others as well.

It is our obligation as NU students to help create a healthy atmosphere by promoting messages of acceptance. It is our responsibility to offer reassurance, not judgment, to our friends and ourselves. Taking care of our own mental health on this campus and seeking help when needed are not acts of weakness, but of immense bravery.

Alana Farkas is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted alanafarkas2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.