As the importance of mental health has begun to garner more widespread recognition, especially within a post-Covid social climate, a significant obstacle still festers: stigma. Stigma (public/self) toward mental health has dire negative ramifications on an individual's capacity to engage in help-seeking behavior and is a potent barrier to recognition of one’s mental health status. A concoction of fear, misinformation and mental health illiteracy, as well perceptions of mental health as ignominious in certain cultural contexts, fetters any effort to improve mental health, trapping individuals in a vicious cycle. It is especially important to be cognizant of mental health in circumstances of dynamic change.
The transition from high school to college can be a turbulent experience. Our undergraduate institutions, like so many others, attempted to address this through general awareness campaigns, such as advertising the campus mental health services to incoming students, tabling at resource fairs, and hosting workshops on the importance of self-care. However, these outreach efforts have little efficacy for students who are reluctant to even discuss mental health out of ignorance, fear or shame.
For instance, we are both college students who come from immigrant families, where traditional cultural attitudes toward mental health are negative and very misunderstood. For us and for many of our peers, the topic of mental health was so taboo that the first time we heard about the concept was when we stepped foot on campus. The fear of being seen as “deviant” by our families and peers poses a massive barrier to outreach efforts.
For those who do reach out to campus mental health resources, it is alarmingly common to encounter services so overwhelmed and under-funded that it may take months to actually speak with a licensed therapist. The fact that this issue is common at so many higher education institutions across the nation points to a systemic failure to take mental health seriously, including awareness at the administrative level of the mental health needs of students.
The onset of the pandemic exacerbated the mental health crisis in America, and our experiences as undergraduate students during this time illustrates how urgently we as public health professionals need to respond to the crisis among the young adult population. The abrupt transition to online classes in March 2020 was difficult for even well-adjusted students. On top of that, many had to navigate efforts to avoid infection, cope with racism, face the loss of employment, mourn the deaths of family and friends, and manage food and housing insecurity stemming from long-standing inequalities. It’s no wonder that mental health awareness finally became mainstream during the pandemic, as so many people (especially college students) were experiencing a dramatic uptick in negative mental health brought on by the pandemic and its associated systemic issues.
Despite broader-level conversations about what mental health is and what to do about it, the burden of the crisis means there’s a lot of catching up necessary to meet the demands of so many people — not to mention that stigma still exists in communities excluded from this national dialogue. By promoting awareness to improve mental health literacy and actively encouraging dialogue to combat mental health stigma, we at GPH can foster a better world for mental health by empowering individuals to seek out necessary treatment and strive toward a better future.