Over 60 students took mental health self-assessments and participated in conversations about anxiety and depression as part of the second annual Mental Health Forum hosted by the Rice Alliance for Mental Health Awareness.
RAMHA Co-President Helen Wei said this year’s focused on anxiety and mental health after a survey by RAMHA sent to the student body found depression and anxiety were the top two mental illness students experienced.
Attendants at the forum stood in a line and stepped forward if statements ranging from “You like country music” to “You or someone you love has a mental illness” applied to them, which RAMHA co-president Simi Rahman said was one of her favorite parts.
“When the statement ‘You or someone you love has a mental illness’ was said, almost all of the attendees stepped forward,” Rahman, a Wiess College sophomore, said. “It was a powerful moment that reminded me of why events like the Mental Health Forum are important for us to have.”
This year’s panel was also different because for the first time it featured student panelists alongside mental health experts, according to Wei, a Will Rice College senior.
Wiess College sophomore Johannah Palomo, a student panelist who spoke about her anxiety, responded to the question “What do you think is the most important aspect of mental healthcare” with the answer “self-care,” but added it is not as glamorous as bath bombs and face masks.
“The one thing that I have learned is that sometimes self-care is is shitty,” Palomo said. “Sometimes you're in bed and you need to move your laundry because it's just sitting in the washer, and it's a five-foot walk to the washer but you can't get out of bed and do it, and self-care is getting out of bed, moving your laundry from the washing machine to the dryer so you can have clothes to wear tomorrow.”
Panelist Sarah Narendorf, a licensed clinical social worker and assistant professor of social work at the University of Houston, answered the question by promoting self-compassion.
“I imagine that many people in this room have a dialogue of self-criticism that you're just running through your head,” Narendorf said. “We talk to ourselves in ways that are much much worse than what we would ever say to somebody else, and so really intentionally struggling against that and being really, really kind to yourself while also challenging yourself to do everything you need to do to manage your life.”
Timothy Baumgartner, a panelist and licensed psychologist who has worked at the Rice Counseling Center since 2005, said it is important to reach out early for help. He added that people like to be confided in because it makes them feel needed.
“The people who really love you want to know what's honestly going on with you,” Baumgartner said. “There's very little of what you're going to share with someone that they aren't going to have at least some idea of what the feelings are. As human beings if you say ‘I'm afraid,’ we all know what fear means, if you say ‘I'm lonely,’ we all know what loneliness means.”
For panelist Cody Treybig, who shared his experience with depression and severe anxiety, guilt can be damaging to mental health.
“You will burn yourself out if everything in your life becomes, 'I'm always doing things because it's what I feel like I need to do,’” Treybig, a Baker College sophomore, said. “And I think the hardest step to take is to flip your entire life on its head and say, 'I'm going to define what I want to do, and I'm going to start doing things for those reasons.'”
The panelists also responded to a question about common misconceptions on mental health.
Palomo said some people may incorrectly equate feeling anxious and feeling depressed with having anxiety or depression. She also said certain popular memes and tweets that joke about depression and anxiety capture these misconceptions.
Panelist Kayla Cherry, who spoke about her own experience with depression, said a common misconception is that if life seems like it’s going well, then someone should not have depression.
“My life is so perfect on the outside,” Cherry, a Lovett College sophomore, said. “I have a very wholesome family, I go to Rice and I don't have to worry about finances. I'm always healthy. I haven't lost anyone really important. I felt like I didn't deserve to have depression. Like, how can I have such a great life and then just be sad?”
Other topics of discussion included how to help. Baumgartner said some people are afraid to ask if someone is having trouble or suicidal out of fear they will increase someone’s anxiety, but asking has the opposite effect. Treybig added that when he is feeling depressed, the most important thing is to connect with people and have someone to listen.
The panelists also answered answered yes to a question on whether therapy can make things feel worse sometimes. Baumgartner said that healing emotional wounds can be painful, but that if every experience is negative, it is also OK to work with someone else.
Rahman said RAHMHA will continue to hold the forum and said students who responded to a follow-up survey also expressed interest in “Mental Health Monologues” in the vein of The Vagina Monologues.
Wei said one idea circulating since the first forum is to have a new position at each residential college similar to the Rice Health Advisor role, but specifically for mental health.
“For me, one of the best comments we got was that someone was really glad they went with a friend because the forum inspired the friend to start seeing someone at the Counseling Center,” Wei said. “That might not have been our primary purpose, but to know that the forum truly had a positive impact on people was really inspiring.”