As the number of students seeking help at Psychological Counseling Services (PCS) climbs to new heights, so does the need for education about mental illness. This was the focus of “Mental Health Matters: Reducing Stress, Distress, and Stigma at Williams,” a three-day event that took place at Williams on April 7 to April 9 and culminated with keynote speaker Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
The Committee of Undergraduate Life (CUL) originally conceived the event. ”They decided that they wanted to take up this area of mental health awareness, to help relieve and decrease the stigma,” said Dr. John Miner, co-director of psychological services of the CUL’s efforts.
Mental Health Matters is part of an increasingly broad outreach on the part of PCS. Recent outreach efforts include Depression Awareness Week last October and Eating Disorder Awareness Week earlier in the semester, as well as tabling in Paresky. PCS has also helped to create the College’s chapter of Active Minds, a student-run advocacy group that encourages students to use the psychological support resources that the College provides.
In preparation for the event, staff and students distributed Jamison’s famed memoir, An Unquiet Mind, which details the agony of severe mania and depression, before spring break.
On the first day of Mental Health Matters, students tabled at Paresky to publicize the program. The second day of events included two film showings. The first, The Truth About Suicide, was followed by a discussion with Chaplain Rick Spalding and Miner. The second, Oscar-winning Ordinary People, provided a glimpse into the disintegration of a family following the suicide of its oldest son.
The third day was focused around Jamison’s lecture in Chapin Hall. Several events were planned in conjunction with the keynote address, including tabling in the morning, a student reception in the afternoon and Stressbusters in the evening. The reception comprised a reading, book signing and question-and-answer session with Jamison in the Stetson Faculty Lounge.
One of the world’s most renowned experts on mood disorders, Jamison has authored several books, including An Unquiet Mind, Touched With Fire, Night Falls Fast and Exuberance, as well as co-authoring the foremost text on manic depressive illness. She has received numerous awards throughout her career, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the National Mental Health Association’s William Styron Award and the American Suicide Foundation Research Award.
Jamison’s lecture, “Personal and Professional Perspectives on Mental Illness,” focused on the experience and implications of going public with a psychiatric illness. She began the lecture by lauding Active Minds, calling it a very effective program across the nation, and then read a selection from An Unquiet Mind describing the experience of having bipolar disorder.
Jamison explained her driving need to go public with her illness, explaining that despite her many concerns, it was ultimately the right thing to do. “I was tired of the hypocrisy, and tired of acting as though I had something to hide.”
For Jamison, writing and talking about her disorder began with teaching it. To illustrate this, she read two brief passages that she had written to explain her condition to the residents at the psychiatric clinic where she worked – one a general overview of manic depressive illness and the other about taking lithium, a common and highly effective mood stabilizer.
Drawing from her own experiences, Jamison attributed the common phenomenon of reluctance to take medication for bipolar disorder to a lack of information and bad medical advice, as well the nature of the disorder itself. “Some of my reluctance stemmed from a fundamental denial that what I had was a real disease,” she said. She also described the stigma attached to any kind of mental illness and the need to restructure beliefs and perceptions, starting from the top. “The problem is the attitudes attached to it,” she said. “If you want to change attitudes about mental illness, the first place to start is the doctors.”
Jamison pressed the importance of speaking up about mental illness, describing the toll that years of untreated illness can have not only on one’s own mental health, but also on loved ones. “The lost years of relationships cannot be recovered,” she said.
Despite the hardships – changed attitudes, frustrating letters and the constant threat of malpractice claims – that ensued from going public about her disorder, Jamison said that it has been a very “freeing” experience. “I continue to have concerns, but very little in life seems to be insurmountably difficult.” Her ultimate goal is to help others by revealing her own experiences, serving as an inspiration and encouraging others to speak up about their own problems and thus reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Given its positive reception, Mental Health Matters will most likely become an annual event at the College. “I do think it was successful, and we have already had conversations in our staff about what we are going to do next,” Miner said. The next event planned by PCS will be a performance by Cosy Sheridan, a singer-songwriter whose songs carry a political message on topics like women’s body image. It will take place on Thursday, April 17, in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall.