Whatcom programs open conversations about mental health

Whatcom Community College hopes to combat the stigma around mental health by reaching out to students and bringing awareness to available resources on campus.

“The stigma and stereotypes around mental illness induce and perpetuate feelings of shame, which keeps people from speaking up and seeking support,” said Carlyn Finerty, a student at Whatcom. 

According to statistics from the most recent Healthy Minds Study, student mental health is getting worse by nearly every metric. During the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem.

Tree drawing
This illustration is meant to symbolize mental health struggles. Illustration by Wes Warfel.

Despite the increasing rates at which students struggle with these issues, they are still confronted with overwhelming negativity around mental health. 

“As a STEM student, there have been times in the past when I was afraid to speak up due to mental illness often being perceived as a weakness and the expectation to hide my struggles. For some, disclosing their mental health status can deny them opportunities at work, school or access to housing,” Finerty said.

During October’s National Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) Whatcom held three virtual events to recognize the importance of mental health, offer support, and bring awareness to the resources available for those with mental health struggles and their families. The topics of the Zoom meetings were obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and finally personal stories and challenging stereotypes.

“The more that people can be open and honest about what they are experiencing as we create that culture of concern, care, and support, I think that will help relieve some of the stereotypes and take down some of those obstacles,” said Crystal Holtzheimer, a math professor, who hosted Whatcom’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder conference.

Beyond simply breaking down stereotypes, the events can bring people together to connect and share their stories of mental illness, whether they are directly impacted or not.

“Attending these events keeps the conversation going and strengthens our community. They also provide opportunities for students to support each other and advocate for change by speaking out about their experiences with mental illness. Speaking up is so important because it educates others, saves lives, and drives systemic change,” said Finerty.

Holtzheimer agrees, ​​”Hearing people’s diverse perspectives only enriches us as human beings, lends to our empathy, and strengthens our sense of cooperation as a whole. So just the fact that people show up can be a powerful form of support.”

Guild, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing tools to individuals struggling with mental illness have concluded that, although all different types of people struggle with their mental health, those of certain ethnic and racial background are less likely to receive help than others. This is why it’s important that we recognize which demographics tend to have lower treatment rates and then work to create communities in which people are more comfortable seeking help and have access to adequate resources.

Receiving support and learning how to manage a mental illness is crucial in dramatically changing a person’s life for the better. 

“Seeking help can save someone’s life and improve their quality of life,” Finerty said. “It can help establish healthier relationships with ourselves and other people and can give us the necessary tools and information to advocate for ourselves. Managing one’s mental illness can also improve day-to-day functioning and improve academic performance.”

There are several community resources available to students. Whatcom’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, which can be dispatched generally within two hours, according to their website, can be accessed by calling the Crisis Care Line at 1-800-584-3578. The number is run by Volunteers of America Western Washington and can act as a 24/7 resource for speaking with a mental health professional who will assess the situation, dispatch the community-based outreach team if needed and make appropriate referrals.

Additionally, dialing 988 can connect you to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Counseling office at college
Counseling services are available to currently-enrolled students at Whatcom Community College. Photo by David Loudon.

Whatcom also has resources at the disposal of students including three full-time counselors that offer free and confidential mental health counseling to currently enrolled students.

The Whatcom counseling office is designed to be a short-term resource for overcoming obstacles and learning coping skills. As the counseling office explained in an email to The Horizon, “Our intention as counselors is to instill hope, promote self-efficacy and teach skills that help students meet the challenges in their academic and personal lives.”

The counselors can also make referrals to external community agencies if deemed appropriate. To schedule an appointment email counseling@whatcom.edu.

However, if you or anyone you know is experiencing an emergency, the counseling office recommends calling the Crisis Care Line (1-800-584-3578).

Connecting a friend or loved one who might be struggling with support and resources is one of the best ways to help them.

“It’s important to be emotionally present, patient, and non-judgmental. Show empathy and care when interacting with a peer or friend who is struggling with their mental health. Refrain from minimizing or challenging what the person is feeling and experiencing. Help them reach out for help or support,” Finerty said.

Pamphlets for mental health issues
Pamphlets for mental health issues are available outside the counseling office at Whatcom Community College. Photo by David Loudon.

Understanding what mental health issues can look like and learning about available support can also be critical for those suffering.

In addition to the events held in October to recognize National Mental Illness Awareness Week, Whatcom counseling staff is offering a L.E.A.R.N. Suicide Prevention Training workshop to help provide new staff, faculty and community members with a better understanding of suicide risk and some of the skills needed to help respond when they recognize an at-risk individual. The two-hour training will be presented by Whatcom counselors Margaret Vlahos and Paul Curd. L.E.A.R.N is an acronym for L – look for signs, E – empathize and listen, A – ask about suicide, R – reduce the danger, N – next steps.

In a similar fashion to how the campus community acknowledges the value of the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of our campus, Holtzheimer believes the same perspective could and should apply to mental health.

“I don’t see mental health as any different. Hearing people’s diverse perspectives only enriches us as human beings, lends to our empathy, and strengthens our sense of cooperation as a whole. So just the fact that people show up can be a powerful form of support,” she said.

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