Tuesday night The Rival and GW College Democrats co-hosted a panel discussion about mental health policy. The discussion, moderated by The Rival’s Director of Communication, Carl Dennis ’16, touched on aspects of mental health struggles and recovery as well as policy reform.
The GW administration, was not present due to lack of responses or schedule conflicts. Sarah Harte, assistant director of GW Mental Health Services, wrote in an email,
“We thank you for thinking to involve us and look forward to hearing the outcome of the discussion. We share in your work to reduce stigma against receiving mental health counseling and supporting the wellbeing of GW students.”
Additionally, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) would have attended, schedule permitting. Murphy is a co-sponsor on a bipartisanship for mental health reform.
The conversation took on different themes regarding mental health. “Facebook statues aren’t enough…We have to be proactive,” stated Dennis.
Dr. Schottland began by stating, “normalizing mental health issues” must be a priority on college campuses. By increasing outreach efforts in terms of counseling center events, student groups and R.A. training, mental health will become part of central part of student life. He emphasized how these outreach efforts will encourage students to come to the counseling center, but also gives them tools and skills to use on their own.
It was a general consensus among the panelists that GW students are overly ambitious and busy, which often affects their mental health. Dr. Jones talked about how as a professor he makes sure he creates an open space for students to talk with him. He also puts the GW mental health resources on the syllabus as a way to formalize help and reduce the stigma.
Dr. Jones stated, “One out of three students know their mental health services on campus.” On the whole, GW students are, “Very interested in pursuing their own lofty ambitions and goals, but not necessarily knowing that there is a resource for dealing with the everyday stressors that you could experience at this level of ambition.”
Students often take on too many responsibilities at the expense of their mental health. The panelists emphasized the merits of on and off campus therapy as a means of off-loading the burdens of college life. Dr. Starr spoke about how therapy can be an educational resource that doesn’t have to be used just in time of crisis.
“We can do all this promotion…you can lead a horse to water, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to drink it,” remarked Grosvenor. It has to be up to the individual to want to seek help and make a positive change in his or her life. This reflected the message of this panel: a call to action.
Exaggeration vs. Reality
Mental illnesses are difficult to talk about as everyone experiences them differently. Those who haven’t dealt with one cannot always understand the struggles.
The demands of student life, jobs, sexual assault, economic difficulties, race relations, gun control are all means of anxiety, as outlined by Dr. Schottland. There’s a “competitive virus,” as classified by Starr. These can all contribute to mental crises.
Grosvenor, however, brought the discussion to the core issue with mental illness and that is a chemical imbalance in the brain. It goes beyond feeling a little overloaded and overworked.
“Of course the stress can cause people to have breakdowns…but there are people living with this imbalance…That’s what most mental disorders are…. This stress is implemented even stronger on those who do have mental illnesses.”
Despite differences on how to articulate the means of coming forth about a mental illness, it was a general consensus among speakers that there needs to be more visibility and tolerance. Outreach efforts are ineffective if they don’t take into account that there is a difference between having a bad day and having a chemical imbalance in brain that affects your wellbeing.
Diversity and Identity
Race and sexuality were big parts of the discussion. Dr. Jones brought the expertise of the intersection of race, class and health, while Dr. Schottland spoke from his position as the LGBTQ specialist at Georgetown University.
“People have to acknowledge privilege and power differentials,” stated Dr. Schottland. He emphasized how students should not be afraid to have the race or sexuality discussion with their therapist. Such factors influence one’s feelings and reactions to triggering situations.
Grosvenor complimented the diversity of therapists in the GW counseling center. It provides for a more welcoming environment when counselors reflect the multiplicity of students, experiences and cultures we have at this school. With regards to seeking an identifiable therapist, she stated, “I don’t want it to matter, but it does.”
The discussion led to the merits of seeking a therapist who the student can identify with on some level.
We need to have discussions around supporting diversity that are reflective of the communities they are serving #ACallToAction
A big part of this conversation was about what reform these panelists would like to see. Grosvenor brought forth the issue of affordability and ensuring mental health care is covered on all insurance plans. Financial barriers often inhibit people’s access to quality and easily accessible care. She talked about how her work with GW Students for Recovery aims to give students a fuller understanding of how policy making works. Grosvenor and some of her organization members will be discussing mental illness and drug addiction at The White House next week.
Dr. Jones expressed how before any reforms are made we “Need to reverse how we’re thinking about mental illness.” The dialogue and stigma have to be changed first. It was a call to “normalize the experience” of mental illnesses.
Dr. Schottland would like to see more money put into hospital and mental health facilities as well as mental health treatment coverage on all insurance plans.
When we talk about mental health policy, we also need to address other structural barriers of inequality such as poverty #ACallToAction
Despite the fact that there is a strong dichotomy between physical and mental health, they are one in the same. Mental illnesses, after all, begin in the brain. That is why Dr. Starr called for “integrated care”; our bodies are composed of interlocking systems that impact one another.
This panel discussion made it clear that you cannot group all mental illnesses into a single entity. Mental health is an umbrella term under which there is a vast divergence of differences. Care needs to be individualized as everyone has different stressors, body chemistry and environmental factors. A universal remedy, however, is to make it clear that those who struggle with mental illnesses, whether they vocalize it or not, are not alone.
Special thanks to GW College Democrats and Jazmin Kay, Dr. Antwan Jones, Dr. Matthew R. Schottland, Psy.D., Dr. Mallory Starr, Hannah L. Grosvenor, Perrin Brown, Raman Mama, and Carl Dennis. Photo credits to Quinn Scanlan.