Mindful Mondays: Mental health awareness shouldn’t be confined to one day

Grace Cillo | Daily Trojan

Oct. 10 marked World Mental Health Day, an annual advocacy event supported by the World Health Organization that emphasizes mental health advocacy and informing the public on the topic. To commemorate the day, many Twitter users, including celebrities, shared their stories and encouraged followers to do the same. Lady Gaga even co-wrote an essay in The Guardian on suicide, using her platform to remind readers that “we can all be a part of a new movement — including people who have faced mental illness themselves — to call on governments and industry to put mental health at the top of their agendas.”

But before we march on Washington, I can’t help but ask: Is the world’s mental health crisis truly anybody’s fault? What would a mental health “movement” even look like?

A fitting theme for this column, this year the WHO focused on promoting constructive discourse among young people, highlighting that half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and that suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers and young adults. Yes, World Mental Health Day is critically important to raising awareness; people need to understand that “it’s okay not to be okay.” But I can only hope that the movement doesn’t end on Oct. 10: Recognizing and addressing warning signs — both in our loved ones and ourselves — should be a priority year-round.

As they join the wave of increasing social awareness, many young people are beginning to understand mental health is an immediate problem that is taking an immense toll on the world’s population. Much of this insight is expressed through social media, which creates, to some extent, a supportive community; I can log onto Twitter right now and pull up several viral posts reminding users that they’re not alone in their struggles. Some are personal narratives; some are simple links to the suicide hotline; all help people realize that their problems are, in fact, pretty normal.

But for some reason, these productive conversations don’t transfer to the real world.

That’s why I would argue that change starts with engaging in open and honest communication — because, as I’ve come to realize, the people who struggle the most are often the ones you’d least expect. Since I started writing this column in January, several close friends have come forward with their own stories of combating mental illness, expressing their appreciation of my efforts to help tear down the stigma surrounding such a common issue. And while it was comforting to know I was offering at least some indirect support, I also began to realize just how severely mental health struggles are affecting my peers.

Quite honestly, it’s a shame that it took an entire column for some of my friends to discuss their struggles with me. Indeed, it’s safe to say that many people want to seek support for their problems, but avoid uncomfortable confrontation due to fear of being judged or misunderstood. That’s why, now more than ever, we need to give young people the opportunity to express their mental health concerns through an outlet that doesn’t involve a screen.

Much of this dilemma can be solved by giving students access to counselors that can assess and help remedy their struggles. At USC, the Engemann Student Health Center has been a subject of criticism for failing to provide students with adequate mental health support services: A recent Daily Trojan feature underlined the fact that 70 percent of students who attempt to make therapy appointments are referred elsewhere. Robert Mendola, the executive director and division chief for counseling and mental health at USC, said the department seems to be so understaffed that one therapist oversees 1,800 students.

However, I must commend the center’s staff for acknowledging the facility’s shortcomings and making tangible steps to improve its efficiency. Engemann has reported that it will add 12 new full-time therapists over the next two years; so far, the center has added five. Mendola cited his own priority of removing the waitlist at Engemann.

“To send a student without a car [and] with a tight schedule to take an hour each way just to see someone for 50 minutes is not realistic,” Mendola said.

As the University works out its own structural issues, I cannot emphasize enough that taking the initiative to communicate mental health concerns is crucial to developing mental resilience. Remember: The first step on the road to recovery must be taken by yourself — big steps, small steps, there’s no rush. Start a conversation and see where it leads. And before you know it, you’ve started your own movement.

Ryan Fawwaz is a sophomore majoring in journalism. His column, “Mindful Mondays,” runs every other Monday.