EMERY: We’re all in this together

Addressing mental health concerns is a collective responsibility

Mental health issues are not about “them,” like so many people seem to believe, or pretend. Emotional problems touch all of our lives. They are particularly close to home on college campuses.

Their high prevalence is one reason why psychological problems are a common, if too often unacknowledged, part of college life. So many young people struggle with anxiety or depression that these problems are often referred to as “common colds” among mental disorders. Eating disorders, substance misuse or abuse and serious family concerns also are widespread among university students.

A smaller but not insignificant number of college students fall victim to bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder or schizophrenia, very serious mental illnesses that typically have an onset in young adult life.

Of course, college life is also full of ordinary stress about living on your own, grades, relationships, and the future. In today’s high-pressure world, ordinary stress can become extraordinary, creating emotional upheaval and academic struggles.

Then there is the often-painful search to find your self, to establish your unique identity, goals, and values. A generation ago, the quest for identity was best captured by the question, “Who am I?” Today, it is perhaps better encompassed by, “What are you doing after graduation?” No wonder college counseling services, like the University’s own CAPS, are so busy and in need of additional resources.

Mental health issues also affect college students who are comfortable with who they are, who cope well with stress and who manage the new social and intellectual challenges of campus life. You may have a roommate with an eating disorder or a drinking problem. Your parents may be going through a difficult divorce, or a sibling may be stumbling over some emotional hurdle you managed to surmount.

Even if your life is not touched directly, mental disorders affect all of our lives indirectly. We cringe through distant but still too-close encounters with incomprehensible violence due to untreated mental illness, or through an uncomfortable, everyday interaction with a homeless mentally ill person, someone with nowhere to go.

How do we, as individuals and a society, continually manage to overlook a problem so common and so close to all of us? What is the answer to our mental health concerns?

There is no one answer. How could there be one answer to such wide-ranging issues? And, unfortunately, even dedicated experts do not have very good answers to some of our most pressing mental health issues.

A good starting point for trying to solve any problem is to acknowledge it. We can better appreciate mental health issues if we talk about them. Again, talking about psychological problems is not a task for “them.” Individually, we all can be more honest about our struggles, within ourselves and in confiding in people we trust. Collectively, we can call attention to the need to better address issues ranging from coping with stress, to developing more effective treatments for anxiety and depression, to prioritizing sensitive yet assertive treatment options for the seriously mentally ill.

For individuals eager to solve psychological problems, my advice would be to listen carefully first. It’s odd. Even though we often do not acknowledge mental health struggles, everyone seems to have an opinion about how to solve them: better parenting, better medication, more hospital beds, deinstitutionalization, more exercise, increased mindfulness, reduced stigma, taking responsibility for things we can control, acknowledging our inability to control the things we cannot. We need all of these things, and more, but we first need to truly understand the problem and the person in front of us. Listen.

We also need to humbly admit to the limits of our knowledge. Those who suffer from mental illness, and their loved ones, can be desperate for answers. And the unscrupulous are always willing to provide “answers” to the desperate. Too many explanations of the cause of mental disorders — and too many bogus cures — litter the historical and contemporary mental health landscape. “I don’t know” is hard to say and harder to accept. But it does identify a problem. Lack of knowledge is a problem that universities like ours can begin to solve with dedicated programs of research.

Finally and most importantly, we need to respond with kindness to the real person who is struggling with mental health concerns, including kindness to ourselves. As caring friends, concerned professionals, or with societal resources, we may not be able to completely solve the problems of someone struggling with psychological conflicts. We may not be able to completely solve our own problems. But we can ease pain — our pain, their pain — by responding to psychological struggles with an embrace of shared human experience, rather than with embarrassment or stigma. We can and should do this, because mental health struggles truly are about all of us.

Robert Emery is a professor in the psychology department and is the Director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law.

Published April 23, 2014 in Opinion

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