Health experts say that caring for students with psychological and emotional troubles is a growing concern on college campuses.
Elmhurst student Sara Hynes believes that the first step in helping such students is breaking down the stigma that keeps many from seeking care.
“Students may be afraid that if they go to the counseling center for help, they’ll be seen as weak, or it will mean they’re crazy,” said Hynes, a junior psychology major from Elk Grove Village. “But if you had a broken arm, going to a doctor wouldn’t make you weak. Ignoring problems only ends up hurting. So it’s important to erase that stigma and start a new conversation about mental health.”
As the Niebuhr Center's Rosa Parks Social Justice Intern, Hynes is helping to start just such a conversation at Elmhurst.
Her yearlong project focuses on the effects of stigmatizing mental illness. In a research paper prepared as part of her internship, she argues that continued silence about mental health needs is contributing to increased rates of incarceration, homelessness and unemployment.
“Mental illness is something we tend not to talk about, something we learn to keep quiet about,” she said. “But there are costs in just turning away from the problem. I want to put the word out about that.”
Hynes’ experience with the topic wasn’t limited to her research. She learned firsthand about issues related to mental health through internships at the Chicago office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and at Breakthrough Urban Ministry’s women’s shelter on Chicago’s West Side.
“I learned how much need there is out there for treatment and for information about mental health,” she said.
To help provide that needed information at Elmhurst, she has launched a campus chapter of a national organization called Active Minds that aims to increase awareness of mental health among college students. Last fall, Hynes represented Elmhurst at a national Active Minds conference in Washington, D.C.
On campus, she is a frequent guest speaker in Elmhurst classrooms, where she makes her pitch to break down the barriers to accessing mental health care. The campus chapter of Active Minds also sponsors monthly conversations about mental health issues.
Hynes credits the Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action with giving her the confidence to believe that she and her fellow students can make a meaningful difference in a critical area.
“What I love about the Niebuhr Center is that it provides a way to make things happen. Thanks to them, I have the ability to make a difference, to encourage people to care,” she said. “That’s why they call it the Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action. The action part is as important as the faith part.”