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How student groups at Iowa colleges are combatting mental health stigma

As state lawmakers have been busy passing landmark mental health reform legislation, 

a growing number of college students around Iowa have also been hard at work advocating for mental health on their campuses. 

Mental illness roughly one out of four teens and college-aged young adults, so it should come as no surprise that young people are bringing more and more attention to mental health issues. 

Across Iowa, student-led organizations such as NAMI On Campus and Active Minds bring mental health issues into the spotlight on their campuses and also act as resources for students struggling with mental health issues of their own. 

Students at Iowa State University started their chapter of NAMI On Campus group in spring 2016, according to the group’s current adviser and ISU chief of police, Michael Newton. 

Chief Newton said students started the organization in order to raise awareness of the stigma associated with mental health issues. 

One of the main projects he said the organization has worked on is called The Green Bandana Project that originally started with the NAMI On Campus at the University of Wisconsin. This project spreads awareness of mental illness resources by having volunteers attach a green bandana to their backpack to let others know they are a safe person to talk about mental illness.

Chief Newton said the organization was also one of many that participated in an Out of the Darkness walk on campus earlier this year. The walk was hosted by Iowa’s State’s Suicide Awareness Organization, and together, participants helped raise over $80,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. 

Similar to NAMI On Campus, Active Minds is a national organization that has several local chapters at colleges and universities around the U.S. 

The Active Minds chapter at the University of Iowa first became a student organization in 2010, according the group’s current president, Sammy Stoll. 

“I believe that this group has brought attention to how no student is alone when facing mental health issues,” Stoll said. 

Her group does a variety of events throughout the year to highlight mental health concerns on campus, educate students and get them talking about mental health.

One event they hold every fall is called “Field of Memories,” where they place approximately 1,200 yellow flags on campus to represent every college student who takes their own lives each year. The group encourages students to write messages of hope and remembrance on the flags, and also provides information to students about mental health and suicide.

Stoll said these and other events help show Active Minds’ presence on campus and also point students to mental health resources they otherwise might not know about.

The Active Minds group at the University of Northern Iowa was started more recently in 2016. 

Its president, Riley Rodemaker, said, “Our biggest goal as an organization is to encourage discussion surrounding mental health. When people don’t talk about mental health for fear of being shunned or embarrassed, it hurts everybody. Therefore, as an organization we strive to keep mental health on the forefront of the campus discussion.”

In addition to providing information to students about mental health, the group has held de-stress events for students during finals week and partnered with the student government last spring to hold the campus’ first annual Mental Health Week. 

During that week, Active Minds hosted guest speakers, sold merchandise to raise money for campus counseling services and remembered those lost to suicide by placing flags on campus. 

Rodemaker said the group is preparing for its next event later this month, which will be a national presentation from official Active Minds speaker, Stacy Pershall. According to her page on the Active Minds website, Pershall regularly speaks about topics such as borderline personality disorder, bullying, eating disorders, suicide, stigma reduction and LGBTQ issues.

Earlier this year, Simpson College founded its own Active Minds chapter. The organization’s president, Rae Konz, said the organization has already done several activities during the its first few months. 

For example, Simpson Active Minds has invited a guest speaker to provide QPR suicide prevention training to the college’s fraternities and sororities. 

“College students are thrown into a high stress environment very quickly,” Konz said. “College can bring to light many mental health issues, and having so many students who are able to recognize when another individual is struggling could be life changing.”

Konz said her group has also held events at Simpson to give students tips on how to deal with burnout and excessive stress. She said they recently partnered with counseling services for an event called Cards Against Anxiety, where students made flashcards with personalized strategies for how they can manage stress. 

In the future, Konz hopes Active Minds will continue to bring awareness to mental health issues on campus. “We are a young and new organization that is just getting its grounding, but I know we have the strength to be very successful and beneficial for this college campus,” she said. 

These and similar student groups that advocate for students’ mental health are an invaluable resource for college students, whether they have a mental illness or not. By letting students know that mental health affects everybody one way or another, these advocacy groups can go a long way in combating the stigma that surrounds mental health.

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