By the time a person reaches college age, there is a good chance their lives have already been affected by a mental health issue. A 2004 study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Abbott Laboratories found that one in three students reported having long periods of depression and one in four reported having suicidal thoughts.
At Eastern Michigan University, one campaign has been pushing to increase awareness of mental health among the campus community while keeping the memories of lost loved ones alive.
SAFE NOW, which stands for Stigma and Fear End Now, is a movement started by EMU students and co-directors Malaika Bass and Bryan Michalowski with help from the EMU Wellness Center.
The Light That Unites, an event being organized through SAFE Now, seeks to bring the campus together in a night of remembrance while helping students understand that in the fight against mental illness and suicide, they are far from being alone.
Participants will light candles in mason jars at Big Bob’s Lake House in honor of family and friends who have been lost. According to Shelby Benoit, who spoke at the campaign’s previous event In My Own Words, this display will serve as a tangible reminder to students battling mental illness that they are not the only ones.
“By using mason jars, it gives us a clear visual representing real people,” Benoit said. “When people see a great number of objects that represent people who are supposed to be here, it’s a real eye opener and gets people thinking.”
Planning for the event began in September 2012, and the campaign’s kick-off took place Feb. 18. In My Own Words, mentioned above, as well as the recent Dancing With the Stars event, were both part of the SAFE Now campaign. The campaign has collaborated with Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Government and now Resident Life, teaming up with resident advisors Hailey Huckestein and Alysha Reed for The Light That Unites.
The students involved in SAFE Now each have their own story behind their passion. Bass was driven to action following a friend’s suicide attempt. Michalowski felt the call to help bring attention to the cause after hearing several news stories about LGBT teens taking their own lives due to the struggles they faced. Benoit, who lost her father to suicide, fought her own battle with mental health issues and now seeks to spread awareness of the issue. Each student’s personal connection serves as a reminder of what they’re fighting for.
“I wanted to make sure that even if I couldn’t save everyone, I would be able to make a difference in at least one person’s life,” Bass, a junior public relations major, said.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, college students face an elevated risk of depression due to the amount of stresses they regularly face, such as difficult schoolwork, living alone for the first time, missing family and old friends and worrying about finances. Benoit shared her experiences regarding these issues.
“I had moved into my own place with no rules,” Benoit said. “I had just turned 21, lived three hours away from my family and just started getting into my major classes. It all just hit me at once, and I know that I’m not the only one that has gone through this. I struggled everyday with even getting out of bed because I felt like it was useless and no one was going to miss me anyways.”
One barrier coming between the campaign and its goal is the stigma placed on people facing mental health issues, which may deter someone from seeking the help they need. One of the goals of SAFE Now and The Light That Unites is to break down that barrier.
“There is a lot of stigma tied to invisible disabilities such as depression, learning disorders, etc. that doesn’t exist around sicknesses that show symptoms such as the flu, cancer and others,” Michalowski, a junior nursing-intent major, said. “That stigma is what makes mental illnesses so deadly, and the awareness that we bring can help expose that and help people realize and understand that there is a better way to go about this.”
“If someone had a cold, or was blind, hard of hearing and they asked you for help, you wouldn’t laugh or call them strange and weird and crazy unless you are normally unkind to others,” Bass said. “So why treat someone with mental illness so offensively?”
The number of tragedies that took place at the end of last semester, most notably the Connecticut shootings and death of EMU student Julia Niswender, also prompted SAFE Now to create an event focused on bringing the community together in a night of remembrance. Jennifer Niswender, Julia’s twin sister, will be attending the event to sell “Justice for Julia” items that will raise money for the scholarship fund set up in Julia’s memory.
SAFE Now and The Light That Unites will be doing their part to unite the students of EMU while demonstrating that mental illness is a huge problem in the college community. Michalowski said CAPS reported to the Board of Regents that EMU has higher than the national average number of students with suicidal thoughts.
“We want people to know that this is a common issue and that bringing people together to share their experiences in one way or another will inspire others to get the help that they may need,” Michalowski said.
The Light That Unites will be held Monday from 12-9 p.m. at Big Bob’s Lake House.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact CAPS at email@example.com or 734-487-1118.
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