KNAYSI: Bigger than biology

We must look beyond the scientific explanations for mental illness to truly combat the problem

Discussing mental health, particularly its role in a community or culture, is difficult. Active Minds, the main student organization on Grounds dedicated to issues of mental well-being, is responding to this challenge with an interdisciplinary approach. On March 19 at 6PM in Monroe 124, the group will host a panel to discuss mental health at the University. The participants will include professors of biology, emergency medicine, clinical psychology and medical anthropology, as well as two deans and the director of the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Given the panel’s highly interdisciplinary nature, it is well suited to address this complex topic.

As I have discussed in previous columns, mental well-being is often an underrated (and even neglected) aspect of University life. Though people often associate the term “mental health” with severe disorder or even suicide, it encompasses more mundane aspects of our daily lives — such as the stress, anxiety or occasional depression that many students experience. Moreover, a discussion of mental health cannot simply involve psychology. It must also consider biology (neurobiology, endocrinology and other relevant systems), as well as social and cultural factors.

When discussing mental health at the University, perhaps it is easiest to start with the individual student. What are the most significant sources of negative thoughts and emotions in a student’s life? What are the acceptable and sufficient methods of coping available to him? Are his habits severe enough to be classified as a disorder, or does he simply have room for improvement? After asking these questions we move on to social factors, which might include the nature of the student’s friendships, romantic interactions and other major and minor relationships. Broadening our view further, we shift from social factors to cultural ones (albeit, the two are highly entwined). How does the student’s culture influence his mental health? This might involve an analysis of the stigma of seeking help or the degree to which unhealthy behaviors are considered normal or acceptable. When it comes to mental health, these various factors are intimately related — and bringing together specialists who represent these different perspectives encourages a more comprehensive dialogue.

Much of the excitement about “interdisciplinary” efforts in mental health treatments involves the fields of neuroscience and psychology. As Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel wrote, we are reaching a “new science of mind” that involves a growing understanding of the neurobiology of psychological disorder. To be sure, these are significant scientific advances that will increase our ability to identify and treat mental illness. But despite all the excitement over neuroscience, many in the mental health community tend to overlook the importance of sociocultural factors.

In an attempt to account for these elements, the panel includes Carrie Douglass, a professor of medical anthropology who studies human health and disease from multidimensional and ecological perspectives. I am currently in Professor Douglass’ introductory course on the subject, and it has broadened my perspective of mental health. We recently discussed “culture-bound syndromes,” illnesses manifested and recognized only in specific societies or cultures. For example, anorexia and bulimia nervosa are classic examples of U.S. culture-bound syndromes. Are University students particularly susceptible to certain culture-bound syndromes (for example, over-exercising)? Specialists like Professor Douglass provide invaluable context not just to American mental health and illness, but also to the mental well-being of University students.

Though it is crucial to have academic specialists involved in a conversation about student mental well-being, we must also include individuals familiar with the available resources. Tim Davis, who joined the University as Director of CAPS last year, is a wealth of knowledge on how students utilize (or don’t utilize) our counseling services, and he has many ideas on how CAPS can adapt to better serve University students. In a similar vein, Adrianna Vito, associate dean of students, has dealt with student mental health on the administrative side of University life. The panel also includes faculty like Sandra Seidel, an association dean in the College who has taken a professional and personal interest in student mental well-being at several universities around the country — which puts in her a unique position to contrast environments across schools.

Considering the diverse knowledge of the speakers on Wednesday’s panel, it promises to be a highly informative experience — not just for students but any individuals with an interest in their mental well-being. Moreover, attendees are encouraged to bring their own questions and stories to the event. But if lasting change is to be affected in our University’s student body, it is important to recognize events like these as part of a series of ongoing efforts.

George Knaysi is an Opinion Columnist for the Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

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