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Student Promoting Mental Health

By Daniel Wells Indiana Daily Student, reprinted with permission

October 01, 2004

As a high school student, junior Meredith Canada experienced the lack of understanding surrounding depression firsthand when many friends and family members failed to comprehend the severity of her affliction.

"It was 'the everybody gets sad mentality,'" she said.

When Canada heard the jokes and comments sparked by last April's suicide attempt at Ballantine Hall, she was inspired to use the understanding gained through her own bout with depression to educate students about mental illness.

"It's a biological disease, just like cancer or diabetes," Canada said. "You wouldn't hear someone make a joke about someone with cancer."

Canada is now working to start a chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill on campus.  With more than 1,200 local affiliates throughout the country, NAMI is a nonprofit support and advocacy organization for the mentally ill, as well as for their family and friends.

NAMI concentrates on four areas: support, education, advocacy and research.

Joan Lafuze, biology professor and chair of NAMI Indiana's Education Committee, said it's important for college students to understand mental illness because incidents of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression are common in young people and because the risk of suicide among the mentally ill is high.

"Mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia, are illnesses that strike young people," she said. "One in 100 people will develop schizophrenia in their lifetime. Seventy-five percent of males who develop schizophrenia do so between the ages of 16 and 25."

Lafuze said bipolar disorder and depression are also very common in younger people.

Canada said she wants the IU affiliate to focus on issues relevant to college students and would like the group to work on suicide prevention and awareness.

Canada also hopes to begin advocating for the mentally ill through letter campaigns and lobbying state legislators.

According to NAMI's Web site, 15 million Americans currently live with severe mental illness, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, with 1,100 students committing suicide each year. The current suicide rate among people aged 15 to 25 is 300 percent higher than it was just 50 years ago.

Canada said the stigma surrounding mental illness often prevents students from seeking help.

"I think a lot of kids are embarrassed by what they're going through," Canada said. She said she hopes having a NAMI chapter on campus will help students coping with mental illness realize they're not alone.

Stigma often surrounds a disease before its biological basis is understood, Lafuze said. Often the family or the individual gets blamed for the illness.

"Cancer used to be considered a dirty disease, a punishment for sin," Lafuze said. "It's a slow journey to come out of the darkness and into the light."

Though Canada decided to do something to combat that lack of understanding, she doesn't expect attitudes about mental illness to change overnight.

"It's going to take generations," she said.

To learn more about NAMI, visit http://www.nami.org.

-- Contact staff writer Daniel Wells at djwells@indiana.edu.


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