World of a Campus Mental Health Advocate

Zoe Howland was a half hour into her day at the national headquarters of Active Minds when she got a call from the Washington Post. The reporter was seeking comment about a new study documenting the positive impact of the organization on student mental health on college campuses across the country. Howland, a summer intern, was the perfect spokesperson.

ZoeHowland

Zoe Howland

Howland is a senior at Ithaca College and the co-president of IC’s Active Minds chapter. She signed up as a member of the student organization in her freshman year, and now helps lead its campaigns to fight the stigma around mental illness and its education programs about mental health for the campus community. The IC chapter has several dozen members; Mikaela Vojnik serves as co-president.

“I love being a voice in student mental health, and I feel like the position of president of Active Minds really does help me do that,” Howland, who is double majoring in Sociology and in Culture and Communication and minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies, said in a recent interview.

One of the projects that Howland is helping oversee is “Send Silence Packing,” a traveling installation of 1,100 backpacks representing the number of college students who die by suicide each year. The day-long exhibition will be held in the IC quad, with the aim of provoking discussion and raising awareness about mental health, promoting suicide prevention, and connecting students to mental health resources. The Sophie Fund is a sponsor of the event.

Howland said that Active Minds also plans to continue building on the Speak Your Mind (SYM) panels, which are designed to reduce stigma through storytelling. Students who have gone through Active Minds training visit classes, share their experiences about mental health and mental illness, and participate in question-answer sessions with the students. This year, Howland seeks to expand SYM’s reach to places like the Business and Music schools. “It would be nice to branch out a little bit and get panels in classes that don’t focus on that in their content,” she explained.

Howland’s summer internship at Active Minds headquarters in Washington, D.C. fostered an even closer relationship for IC’s Active Minds chapter. “I got to work with the chapter coordinator, so I did a lot of corresponding with new and developing chapters to try and get their chapter off the ground,” she said. “I got to talk to people who were really passionate about mental health and just wanted help bringing it to their campus, and I got to see the behind-the-scenes of such a cool nonprofit.”

Howland also serves on the national Active Minds Student Advisory Committee, comprised of students from chapters across the country who contribute local perspectives.

Over the course of Howland’s college career, she has widened her own perspective on mental health. Her courses in Sociology and Culture and Communication studies have offered new lenses for her thinking. Where Sociology has allowed her to consider societal views on mental health and treatment, Culture and Communication studies has encouraged her to investigate how the ways we choose to talk about mental health shape our perceptions and ultimately our attitudes toward stigmas.

Advocacy through Active Minds, education in the classroom, and her personal experience have all played a part in Howland’s comprehensive outlook on mental health. And though she’s dedicated plenty of thought to the topic, she goes on to say, “But of course I’m always learning. There’s always more information to find and more articles to read.”

Over time, Howland has come to discover at the heart of her mental health philosophy is talking, sharing stories, and diminishing stereotypes. “I think you gain a lot of really valuable knowledge,” she explained. “Just getting to know people and their stories gives you a broader base to base your assumptions and knowledge when you’re talking to someone else about it.”

ActiveMinds

Active Minds national Student Advisory Committee

Howland has made no concrete plans for her future, but she is definitely interested in pursuing work in mental health after graduation next spring. She credits Active Minds for shaping so much of her college experience, both in and out of the classroom. “I think that it really ignited a passion in me that didn’t really exist before which has definitely shaped what I want to do with my life,” she said.

For now, Howland will focus her energy on writing her senior thesis on the topic of—you guessed it—mental health. “My thesis will be about how people talk about mental health on a day-to-day basis, how people trivialize mental health while also stigmatizing it,” she explained. Clearly, Zoe Howland has much to teach us, for a long time to come.

—By Margaret McKinnis

Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.

Well Done, Active Minds

An important new study indicates that student mental health organizations such as Active Minds on college campuses increase mental health knowledge, decrease stigma around mental disorders, and increase helping behaviors.

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Facebook photo of Active Minds members at Ithaca College

“Student peer organizations’ activities can improve college student mental health attitudes and perceived knowledge and significantly increase helping behaviors,” said the study, published this week in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “Such organizations can complement more traditional programs and play an important role in improving the campus climate with respect to mental health.”

The study, titled “Strengthening College Students’ Mental Health Knowledge, Awareness, and Helping Behaviors: The Impact of Active Minds, a Peer Mental Health Organization,” surveyed more than 1,100 students during the 2016–17 academic year at 12 California colleges with Active Minds chapters.

A June 28 Washington Post story about the study cited the Active Minds chapter at Ithaca College, and it’s co-president, Zoe Howland:

“The rising senior at Ithaca College joined its chapter her freshman year and says the group made her transition easier. The New York school’s chapter is one of the oldest and largest in the country, averaging about 30 members a year. Among the activities they promote are ‘Speak Your Mind’ panels for which students are trained to tell their own mental-health stories or those of friends or family members. The panels visit classrooms and several times a year address the entire campus. ‘I came in not knowing what I wanted to do,’ said Howland, who is now the group’s co-president. ‘Now I want to go into mental-health advocacy. Active Minds ignited a passion in me that I didn’t know existed.’”

Executive Director Alison Malmon founded Active Minds in 2003 while at the University of Pennsylvania three years after the suicide of her 22-year-old brother Brian, a student on leave from Columbia University. The group has some 450 chapters and operates on more than 600 campuses across the country.

According to the study, student peer organizations conduct a range of activities “to lessen stigma, improve knowledge of mental health, and enhance skills for identifying and referring peers struggling with mental health issues.” Active Minds’ activities include campus installations such as “Send Silence Packing,” a display of more than 1,100 backpacks to represent the number of college students lost to suicide each year; speak-out events and storytelling programs; and discussion groups and and seminars. “These activities help promote an ongoing dialogue about mental health on campus through peer-to-peer conversations, social media, ongoing programming, and campus print media,” said the study.

The study concluded:

“These findings suggest that, in addition to more traditional education or contact-based programs that rely on short-term or singular experiences to reduce stigma and improve knowledge of mental health issues, student peer organizations that establish an on-going presence on campuses and use a combination of educational, contact-based, large-scale programs, and small-group activities initiated and led by peers on campus throughout the year can meaningfully influence not only student perceived knowledge and attitudes but also their behaviors within a single academic year.

“Such changes in how the general student population views and understands mental health issues, brought about by student peer organizations, could be instrumental in shaping a more supportive climate toward mental health issues on campus. This has important implications for addressing student mental health treatment needs, because students with mental health problems are more likely to receive needed services if they feel the climate on their college campus is more positive with respect to mental health.

“Increased familiarity with Active Minds over the school year, whether resulting from exposure to a range of on-campus activities (e.g. public exhibitions and interactive events) or simply general awareness of the organization, appears to have successfully raised perceived mental health knowledge and awareness and decreased stigma, regardless of whether students were actively involved in Active Minds programming. Furthermore, students who became actively involved with Active Minds during the academic year appear to be more likely to take action to support others with mental health issues, behavioral activation that is not commonly seen in many more traditional education or contact-based programs.”

The study noted that the work of campus organizations like Active Minds can potentially increase students’ use of mental health services, but added that there remains a critical need for “sufficient mental health services” to meet the needs of students. “Among college and university students in the United States,” the study said, “there is a substantial gap between the need for mental health treatment and the receipt of mental health services.”

According to the study:

“Recent studies estimate that 20% to 36% of college students deal with some form of serious psychological distress, but that only approximately a third of these students, many of whom have access to on-campus providers and insurance to cover services, receive treatment. This unmet need for mental health care among college students represents a significant public health issue. Young adulthood is a critical period: without treatment for mental health problems, students face a range of potentially serious and lasting consequences, including dropping out, substance misuse, difficulties with social relationships, and lower lifetime earning potential.”

The Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment, in a survey of 19,861 students at more than 40 American schools, reported that 35.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

According to the 2017 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, data collected from 147 college counseling centers showed that 34.2 percent of 161,014 college students seeking counseling in the 2016–17 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” The rate increased for the seventh year in a row, up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 10 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

For more information, go to the Active Minds website.