Let’s Talk About Mental Health

In Features, Latest News by Jenna Miller

She is a strong Christian girl with a strong faith.

She is also an unofficial art major with a love for crocheting

She takes antidepressant medicine for her mental illness.

And she is gay.

Delaney O’Keefe, a senior child development major at Point Loma Nazarene University, not only is stigmatized by having a mental illness and talking about it publically, she also is stigmatized for being an openly gay woman as well.

O’Keefe started a Discipleship Group or D-Group on campus that meets every Tuesday night for an hour to talk about mental health.

“I felt compelled to start it because I have struggled a lot with my mental health and it’s something that I’ve just been really open about and determined to overcome for my whole life,” O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe started this group last year on her own and struggled when it first started out because talking about mental health had potential to get really dark and really sad. So for this year, she decided to do the group again but with a partner.

Her friend Tess Murray, a junior sociology major, decided to help her start this new and improved D-Group for the 2017-18 academic year. The group talks about topics surrounding mental illness and share stories from their struggles, but Murray and O’Keefe like to end each session a higher note instead of a somber one.

With her mental illness, O’Keefe takes medication to help ease the symptoms and to help her regulate the chemicals in her brain. She is taking an antidepressant. But opening up about it on a Christian campus brought its own challenges.

“In my earlier years here, I’ve experienced a lot of response from people saying, ‘You can pray about. You don’t need you medication’ and stuff like that,” O’Keefe said. “Which was unhealthy for me and just problematic and just not helpful at all. So that stigma, especially around medication within the Christian community is definitely prevalent on this campus.”

Yet even through the constant negative feedback from the Christian community, these girls say that they continue to love Jesus and trust in Christ through all of the hard times.  

“We both have really strong faiths and lean heavily on our relationships with Christ and lean on each other to grow in that relationship,” said O’Keefe.

Prayer is powerful and can be a coping strategy, but seeking therapy and seeking medical help is an important step to recovery  according to Dr. Jimiliz (Jimi) M. Valiente-Neighbours, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at PLNU.

Valiente-Neighbours said she suffered from panic attacks throughout grad school and wished that she had taken advantage of the counseling that had been offered to her.

“I should have just preventative counseling sessions instead of waiting until I had panic attacks or gone through an emotional breakdown,” Valiente-Neighbours said.

Valiente-Neighbours said that from then on, she wanted to promote seeking help for mental illness and going to therapy to help with those problems. She not only promotes it, but she says it’s healthy.

Pami Young, athletic trainer for the PLNU baseball and volleyball teams and adjunct professor in the kinesiology department, says she is working on getting rid of those myths surrounding the Christian stigma of praying away illnesses. Young says that seeking help from medication is not only healthy but courageous.

Young also created a Canvas course for athletes and those involved in the athletic training program at PLNU to educate students on the differences between mental toughness and mental illness.

She also gives them access to a self assessment survey to see how they’re doing mentally and if they should seek out help or seek out someone to talk to.

“We talk about injuries from a physical standpoint, why can’t we talk about mental injuries?” said Young. “Why can’t we talk about that stuff too? Why does it have to be more secret, more hidden? Why do you have to feel less if you struggle with anxiety or you struggle with depression or you struggle with self esteem issues?”

Seeking out help from professionals in the form of therapy is also an important step in the battle with mental illness says Young. This doesn’t mean going to a professor and talking out problems with them, though that may be the first step in this long process.

According to Murray, professors who are able to build that trust with students are a great resource to go to but they should not fill in as the therapist.

Murray says that’s it’s important for professors to know their boundaries as professors and not therapists. She also said it’s important for the counselors in the Wellness Center to admit when they do not know how to help and refer them to someone else.

Dr. Kim Bogan, dean of student success and wellness, said in an email to The Point that the Wellness Center has helped about 10 percent of the student population at PLNU with health concerns.

“Our staff of licensed therapists and a counseling intern provide brief therapy sessions that are designed to equip college students with skills and support so they can accomplish their educational, personal, spiritual and career goals,” Bogan said.

She did say that the Wellness Center has great resources for therapy and places to go see a licensed therapist. But both Murray and O’Keefe voiced their discontent with how the Wellness Center has handled their mental illnesses in the past.  

“I am massively disappointed in the Wellness Center,” O’Keefe said. “But there are other resources. One thing that is good about the Wellness Center is that it does make itself very available.”

In addition to the counselling services provided, the Wellness Center also provides a Depression Screening Day where students can take a free depression screening as well as learn more about mental health concerns among college students.

“Our counseling team is available to give students assessment results and invite students to receive counseling services as needed,” Bogan said. “Having the campus community join with the counseling team in their efforts to increase Mental Health Awareness education and outreach would promote greater opportunities for positive conversations across our campus.”

But sheO’Keefe also says that she’s noticed PLNU as a whole has been more active in talking about mental health in different settings like Timeout in an attempt to try and destigmatize mental illness.

According to Dr. Joel Sagawa, Professor of Psychology at Point Loma Nazarene University, though some evidence suggests a decrease in stigmas placed around mental health, they still exist within areas of our society.

“When these prejudices and hidden biases are particularly strong within a community, family, or individual, it can make it increasingly difficult for someone dealing with a mental health condition to get help,” said Sagawa.

Young said that kids are born with the belief that they are invincible and that they are strong enough to withstand any challenge that life throws their way. They can do it all by themselves.

According to Young, seeking out therapy is hard because for students, it means facing the truth about themselves that shows them that they are broken and they do need help.

But Young stresses to her students who come to her and share their struggle with mental illness that it is courageous to share and it takes a huge amount of bravery to share their real feelings. She wants to turn that preconceived idea that feelings are weak into the idea that feelings show strength.

“It encourages the bravery side that we need as people to be seen as something more than just my soft, inner self,” Young said. “Because we like to have the tougher exterior.”

In order to start these conversations, people must be willing to share. Young said to start sharing in small, safe spaces within a circle of people whom that students shares a great amount of trust with. It can be a single friend or mentor or family member, or it can be a group that this student feels comfortable.

O’Keefe and Murray’s D-Group is an example of a place where individuals can come, talk about their struggles within a trusting circle and get references and help from the two leaders.

“I think that constant safe space is something that I feel like a lot of students at this campus lack or feel that they wish they had that,” Murray said.  

According to Sagawa, other universities have initiatives proposed by committees that may include tracking student mental health statistics across campus, establishing a peer-education program, and advocating for more mental health practitioners on the campus.

“Many large universities have a designated Student Mental Health Committee comprised of various students, staff, and faculty who are charged with the task of identifying strategies for improving student mental health and diminishing mental health stigma across their campus,” said Sagawa.

Another way to help destigmatize mental illness is to spread awareness in larger, more popular settings to show that it’s not a private conversation that the student should feel embarrassed or scared about having.

Valiente-Neighbours acted in the new verbatim play, Untold over the summer produced by Blindspot Collective and was directed by Blake McCarty along with Catherine Hanna Schrock. The lines of the play are taken directly from interviews with people exploring the topic of mental illness.

Her hopes are for this play to be performed during the school year so more students can attend and be exposed to the conversations occurring in the play.   

Valiente-Neighbours also said that when looking at the issue of mental health stigmas from a sociological view, just talking about the subject and getting to a point where this is now a common conversation topic will also help.

“Make it easy for people to say, ‘Wow, I’m under a lot of stress and I need help’,” Valiente-Neighbours said. “Because stress is an indicator of something that can be addressed through counseling.”

According to Young, a way to approach these conversations is to approach it with grace and to push for these conversations because they help the student get closer to living a healthier life.

“We are people intended to be whole,” Young said. “So our physical selves, our emotional and mental selves, our spiritual selves are so intertwined, our body heart and mind are so interconnected.”

O’Keefe has stigmas placed on her for being gay and for being on medication.

She could’ve let those stigmas crush her.

Instead, she’s used them to push her forward to start a D-Group, to join a club that supports the LGBTQ community and to use her story to inspire others.

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