Repeat something often enough and it loses its meaning.
This spring, a group of University of Minnesota student government leaders are hoping to turn that assumption on its ear, by taking one of the most commonly uttered phrases in the English language and encouraging students to actually pay attention to the response when they ask a classmate, “How are you?”
This effort is part of a University-wide campaign designed to focus on the mental health of U of M students, which has been under increased scrutiny ever since Boynton Health Service’s annual student survey found that the number of students reporting a mental health diagnosis had increased by 33 percent since the last time the survey was taken.
For the last two years, the University’s Student Association developed and promoted a spring communications campaign; This year’s campaign, “How are you?” follows “No Gray,” the 2015 campaign, which focused on campus sexual assault.
Junior Emma Mazour, Minnesota Student Association communications director, came up with the idea for “How are you?”
“I thought, ‘People are always asking, ‘How are you?’ every day, but they don’t actually mean it,” she said. “They don’t really want to know how you’re doing. I just figured since it is already out there, we should re-empower those words to mean something and take the opportunity to check in with people about their mental health.”
By encouraging people to pause and think about the meaning behind a rote phrase, by opening up an opportunity for an honest discussion about a young person’s emotional state, Mazour and her fellow committee members hope to encourage more open conversation around mental health.
“I wanted to make people rethink their everyday actions,” Mazour said. “Mental health is a part of life. It’s something that affects so many people, yet it is not usually a topic of conversation. When we realized that the problem is that people aren’t talking about their mental health, it was a natural progression to make it the focus of the campaign and do something positive about it.”
Mental illness touches everyone
This campaign is central to improving the quality of life on campus for everyone, said University of Minnesota Student Body President Joelle Stangler.
“I think mental health impacts the community in a lot of different ways,” she said. “Look at the academic impact: When your lab partner is struggling with mental health issues, it impacts your work on the project. When you are working on a group project, and one of the team members has a mental health issue, it’s hard for them to carry their weight. It also impacts students who are just trying to support their friends.”
The “How are you?” campaign is designed to begin with one-on-one conversations between students, but organizers like Stangler hope that if those conversations reveal serious mental illness, the students involved won’t try to address on the issue themselves. These conversations are intended to be a starting point.
“This campaign encourages peer-to-peer conversation about mental health as a first step,” Stangler said. “We hope that this campaign will ultimately encourage more students to seek help from trained mental health professionals.” Campaign materials feature resources where students can turn for help.
Not everybody is comfortable having serious conversations about mental health. Because of this fact, “How are you?” organizers have also partnered with staff from the university’s Student Counseling Services to create a short online training program that gives tips on how to talk to a friend about his or her mental health. The program was launched this week.
“We are utilizing a training Student Counseling Services developed for faculty,” Mazour said, explaining that the group adapted the existing training to make it appeal to a student audience, with four short videos narrated by Stangler: “We are making it accessible to students so if one of their friends is having mental health problems they know what to say. Having conversations about mental heath can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before. We are trying to empower students.”
Social media campaign
Though there were a few live events tied to the campaign, “How are you?” organizers have largely relied on social media to communicate their message.
Last Wednesday, the campaign went live on Facebook.
“We’ve already gotten over 50,000 views,” Mazour said. “People are talking about it. We’ve heard a lot of good feedback. The video is just the beginning.” Through the Humans of the U of M online community, students and other community members are encouraged to share their stories of living with mental illness. Visitors are chiming in to offer support, encouragement and advice for seeking outside help.
“We’re putting a face to mental illness and trying to reduce stigma,” Mazour said. By focusing on online platforms, organizers hope to make “How are you?” feel, “really accessible. Being online is a way that everybody can feel support and be part of the campaign and participate. Because it’s so easy to access, it’s hard to have an excuse not to get involved.”
The campaign was announced with a YouTube video featuring a range of student leaders explaining why people don’t like to talk about mental health concerns and encouraging more open conversations about the topic. Mazour wrote the script and produced the video with help from G-TV, a student-run digital media organization.
“It was an entirely student-led initiative, which makes the intent of the video even more genuine,” she said. “Students saw the importance of this issue and they wanted to help out. We all came together to make a difference.”
More professional help needed
If “How are you?” achieves its goal of connecting students struggling with mental illness with the professional help they need, the university’s already stretched options for student counseling will feel even more strained. There are already waiting lists for individual appointments with on-campus counselors, and while student-run volunteer groups like de-stress have stepped in to fill the gap, student groups say the university needs to hire more therapists and counselors to meet demand.
This represents a change in “business as usual” at the university, Stangler acknowledges. “Only in the last decade have academic institutions begun to be expected to be responsible for mental health on campus,” she said. She hopes that U of M administrators will schedule campus meetings to discuss the topic this summer. “We would like to see the institution pause and evaluate where we are going,” she said, “but in the meantime, we are advocating for increased staffing.”
The desire for action on this issue is apparent, Stangler said.
“Most of the movement it has been grassroots. Fifty students showed up for a forum last week and expressed a need for mental health funding based on this campaign. I think it is creating a greater level of awareness. The demand hit us quickly over the last decade. We aren’t addressing this systematically. We need to try.”
The university has responded by adding four new mental health positions: two permanent counseling staff at Boynton Mental Health Clinic, and two temporary counseling positions at Student Counseling Services.
“The Office for Student Affairs is committed to this issue,” Stangler said. “They moved up the hiring to help with wait times. It’s great to see a community-driven collaboration drive change.”