New statistics on Sewanee mental health spark “Let’s Talk” campaign

Students on the panel from left to right: Edgar Huerta (C’21), Anna Wilson (C’20), Abbie Warr (C’19), Ben Sweeton (C’21), and Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21). Photos by Olivier Mbabazi (C’21).

By Fleming Smith
Staff Writer

Hidden. Difficult. Not what it seems.

That’s how students at a recent panel described mental health issues on Sewanee’s campus. The new initiative “Let’s Talk,” spearheaded by the Student Government Association (SGA) and Interfraternity and Intersorority Councils (ISC) with assistance from the Wellness Center, hopes to destigmatize mental health and encourage students to get help.

The campaign began after startling statistics arose from a Easter 2018 survey. The “Healthy Minds” wellness survey, conducted by the University of Michigan on behalf of the Wellness Center, collected data online from 520 students, 31 percent of the student body of the time.

73 percent of students who took the survey said the campus environment has a negative effect on their mental and emotional health, and 40 percent felt isolated from campus life. For student leaders, these statistics were a call to action.

SGA President Mac Bouldin (C’19) and IFC/ISC presidents Garrett Lucey (C’19) and Mary Margaret Murdock (C’19) began planning the “Let’s Talk” campaign for mental health awareness in August. For preparation, they met near-weekly with Wellness Center director Dr. Nicole Noffsinger-Frazier and Grant & Research Administrator Julian Wright (C’17).

According to Bouldin, SGA has talked with Noffsinger-Frazier before about obtaining more resources for the Wellness Center, which many believe to be underfunded; students seeking psychological services are sometimes placed on waiting lists before they can receive help.

“We thought the most applicable thing we could was this awareness campaign, drawing attention to the resources that were there and then maybe in the long run getting the University to pay more attention to psychological services and Wellness Center resources,” Bouldin explained.

Discussion on the Wellness Center’s funding has been ongoing. Murdock, as an elected Student Trustee, advocated this week for more resources for the Wellness Center and particularly their psychological services in her annual presentation to the Board of Regents.

On campus, the student leaders hope the “Let’s Talk” campaign can destigmatize talking about mental health issues. As IFC president, Lucey especially wants more male students to become involved in the conversation on mental health.

“I think we need to really destigmatize the negative talk,” Lucey said. “If there’s one thing I’d leave this campus adding, it’s that more men feel comfortable being able to admit that they have mental issues and they’re not scared to say I need to go to the Wellness Center, I need help.”

Both Lucey and Murdock are working to incorporate mental health awareness into new member education for Greek organizations.

The campaign launched in early February with a video announcing the project and releasing some of the statistics from the Healthy Minds survey.

While the student leaders wanted to draw attention to some of the more concerning statistics, such as the possible negative impact of campus life on mental health, they kept the video upbeat, encouraging students to seek help at the Wellness Center. They suggested students reach out to others, even just with the passing Sewanee hello.

The video, scripted by Murdock and filmed by alumna Allison Kendrick (C’10), is the product of months of research. Bouldin, Lucey, and Murdock wanted something similar to the “It’s on Us” campaign for sexual assault, but they struggled to find a comparable campaign for mental health awareness.

“I think we’ve all felt like the things the video says that we feel. I think we can do a better job of making sure that people know that that’s okay, and not that you shouldn’t feel that way but that it’s okay that you are, let me help you out,” Murdock explained.

Student leaders of the panel from left to right: Garrett Lucey (C’19), Mac Bouldin (C’19), and Mary Margaret Murdock (C’19)

Bouldin added, “It’s an issue that’s affected everybody, it’s affected me and a lot of my friends in my four years here, and for a lot of those people I’ve seen it do a lot of damage. A lot of people ended up leaving because of things like this.”

The week the video was released, SGA and IFC/ISC hosted a student panel to discuss mental health. Nearly 100 students, most of them female, attended. Edgar Huerta (C’21), Anna Wilson (C’20), Abbie Warr (C’19), Ben Sweeton (C’21), and Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21) addressed their own experiences with mental health and their ideas for healthy ways of coping.

Many students have cited the problem of substance abuse as both a cause and effect of mental health problems. The Healthy Minds survey revealed that 80 percent of respondents had engaged in binge drinking within two weeks of taking the survey. Compared to other schools around the nation that also took the survey, Sewanee was the highest or tied for the highest in binge drinking.

For student leaders and the Wellness Center, it’s clear that mental health issues, and the way they manifest, can’t be fixed overnight. For them, it’s about to starting the conversation and bringing it “out to the open, with everybody involved,” according to Bouldin.

For the Wellness Center, the survey contained positives as well as negatives. 40 percent of survey respondents had already gone to the Wellness Center for help, and 89 percent said the help they received was beneficial for their mental and emotional health.

According to Wright, who manages the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration grant that enabled the survey, the statistics revealing students’ negative experiences with mental health “weren’t surprising” to many therapists in the Wellness Center.

“I think this is something that they’ve been seeing for years now,” she said.

Wright explained that now, with the statistics to back them up, those involved in handling mental health on campus can say, “This is actually what we’ve been dealing with for a really long time. Students are struggling with this, and we may not be doing a good enough job of meeting that need.”

She continued, “I think [more funding] is a necessity at this point…when you look at the difference between the student need and what the utilization rates are right now, we need to do a better job.” Wright stressed that Wellness Center employees are doing a great job, but need more resources to fully meet the student need.

In a recent Wellness Center newsletter, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Director Dr. John Jackson addressed the perceived lack of funding for their services. He wrote that at the end of 2018 and during the break, he worked with the Dean of Students Office to “secure funding for additional contract therapist hours.” He announced that they now have a higher staff-to-student ratio than ever.

However, Jackson added that the waitlist “continues to loom on the horizon” and that without an additional full-time therapist, CAPS remains understaffed and the waitlist may return.

While the conversation on student mental health continues, student leaders and the Wellness Center want the “Let’s Talk” campaign to be a message of hope despite the somewhat alarming statistics.

“It’s amazing how easy it has been to get people on board with this kind of a mission, and all people have needed is the opportunity to do something about it,” Bouldin said. “You give them that opportunity, they’re 110 percent in.”