Mental health: breaking the silence


Josh Orange

In 2007, seventh grader Matthew Sykes needed guidance and found it in a friend and fellow Boy Scout — a “man of principle,” as he called him — who he could look up to.

Sykes’ friend, who he referred to as “Jack” for privacy, was a 16-year-old Eagle Scout who took Sykes under his wing and taught him the basics of survival. He was an influential mentor in the life of an impressionable child entering adolescence, but one who will unfortunately only live on in Sykes’ memory.

Jack lost his battle with depression in 2007, when he took his own life.

“I felt more alone than I ever thought was possible,” Sykes, now 21 and a senior at Pitt, said, remembering his friend last week.

In September 2012, Sykes came to Pitt with what he referred to as “the blind confidence of anyone who is starting a new chapter in their life.” But a month after arriving on campus, he answered a frantic phone call informing him that another friend had taken his life. This was the first of two people Sykes would lose his freshman year to mental illness.

Last semester, mental illness shook the Pitt community, too, when three students took their own lives. In the aftermath, students have stepped up not only to bolster Pitt mental health initiatives, but also to foster their own strategies for reaching out to struggling peers. 

Sykes, an engineering major and the vice president and financial manager of Student Government Board, is partnering with fellow Board member Meghan Murphy, the Counseling Center, Pitt’s administration, student organizations, including Active Minds, the Greek community and individual Pitt students to make mental health a focus on campus this semester.

The outcomes of this coalition will include a mental health awareness week, an art gallery, a mental health task force and a possible partnership with the Jed and Clinton Foundation for suicide prevention and substance abuse counseling on college campuses. The Jed and Clinton Foundation, a partnership between the The Jed Foundation and the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, is an organization that aims to help prevent death in young adults caused by suicide and unintentional injuries, including those caused by prescription drug overdoses or alcohol poisoning.

“I believe that we can come together as a student body, as a family and create a culture where nobody feels stigmatized about mental illness,” Sykes said.

The awareness week, scheduled for Oct. 20 to 24, will include a TED talk, mental health bystander training and an event to talk openly about mental illness.

The Pitt administration, according to Shawn Ahearn, spokesperson for Student Affairs, has been working on mental health initiatives for several years through its Talk About It campaign. The campaign works to spread awareness about depression and to encourage students to seek help through tabling outside the Union and in Towers.

Ed Michaels, the new director of the Counseling Center, said iniatives like this one attempt to recast the image of mental health services as a smart thing for students to do.

Still, if the goal is to convince young people that seeking professional help is hip, students have to lead the charge.

That’s exactly what Delta Sigma fraternity brothers Maharsi Naidu and Daniel Bakhadj were thinking when they approached Marian Vanek, director of Student Health Services, and Matthew Richardson, chair of Greek life at Pitt, last year to talk about reaching struggling students.

“[Richardson and Vanek] were both very enthusiastic and wanted to hear feedback [on mental health resources] from students,” Bakhadj said. “I think that’s what they were missing.”

All three students who lost their lives last year were members of the Greek community. Naidu and Bakhadj saw firsthand how the tragedies affected their friends and brothers.

Richardson said Greek life members and students like Bakhadj and Naidu are “crucial bystanders,” who should “work to identify the causes of poor mental health.”

“This is done by normalizing — ensuring peers and friends know that it is OK to feel the way they are feeling,” Richardson said. “But just as they would if they were physically ill, a person must seek help from qualified professionals.”

And that’s where the Counseling Center comes in.

Ed Michaels, who became director of the Counseling Center in June, has put together a task force, designed to address mental health on campus through a membership that spans the entire campus. Among the 15 members of the task force are Neil Johnston, Tower A resident director; Summer Rothrock, assistant director of leadership development and Greek affairs; Dave Kirchner of the Pitt Police; Murphy and Sykes and students Alayna Davis and Amber Middleman of the Active Minds organization. 

To start, these 15 key stakeholders at Pitt, along with directors in the Student Affairs department and the professional staff of the Counseling Center, filled out a survey to prioritize 25 possible points of focus regarding mental health, University services and general student well-being.

The survey decided in what order the task force would address key issues, Michaels said. 

The results of the survey, given to The Pitt News by Michaels, show the highest priority points were recognizing the risk of suicide, developing suicide prevention initiatives and recognizing distressed students in need of help. Some other topical areas mentioned include reducing binge drinking, violence prevention initiatives and coping skills workshops.

In response to these answers, Michaels will lead a series of 90-minute training sessions on recognizing and addressing signs of mental or emotional distress in students. These sessions will take place in the next six weeks and will be mandatory for all Student Affairs employees. In the future, the training will also include people from the athletics department, resident assistants, academic advisors and leaders in the Greek community.

Michaels admitted that some students may be wary of speaking with administration if they’re struggling with mental illness.

According to a survey of college students in 48 states conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 50 percent of students with mental illnesses chose not to disclose that information to their college, even though it’s legally required so students can receive the appropriate accommodations. The top reason for nondisclosure was “fear or concern for the impact disclosing would have on how students, faculty and staff perceive them.”

Nance Roy, who has worked in collegiate mental health for 20 years, said when a student is struggling with mental illness, the first person he or she is most likely to talk to is a friend.

For its initiatives, Pitt has sought out Roy’s expertise. Murphy and Sykes are currently talking with administration about a possible partnership with the the Jed and Clinton Foundation Health Matters Campus Program — which Roy works for. The program promotes emotional well-being and works to reduce substance abuse and increase suicide prevention on college campuses.

The Task Force is in the process of benchmarking the program’s success at 12 other schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Sykes said The Task Force will most likely put the partnership up for a vote at its meeting this Tuesday.

“What we were nervous about is not having people with Ph.D.s and psychologists,” SGB member Murphy said, “We didn’t want to go at this without people on our side [who] were professionals.”

The program works with colleges by installing a four-year comprehensive plan that begins and ends with a survey. The first survey, which administrators on the task force would take, is about 130 questions and addresses current policies for alcohol, drugs and health promotion. The survey gives professionals at the Jed and Clinton Foundation detailed feedback about the current infrastructure of the campus, which they will then discuss and work to improve with the task force on campus.

Roy said the aim of the program is to look at the entire makeup of a student’s emotional and physical health.

“When someone is struggling academically, look at the student as a whole person, not just the neck up,” Roy said. “Take a realistic look at what might be [affecting them].”

As an example, a university would assess why a student who does well academically suddenly began failing classes, rather than just place the student on academic probation. And if a student is arrested on drug or alcohol charges, the program recommends schools assess why a student turned to those substances, rather than simply punishing the student for consumption and possession.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, more than 70 percent of adolescent suicides may be complicated by drug and alcohol use and dependence.

“When someone’s mood is depressed, those feelings are exacerbated by substances — it can tip the scales,” Roy said.

Students may turn to alcohol and illicit or prescription drugs when they’re struggling. “Of course, the effect [of using drugs] is antithetical. In fact, it makes things worse,” Roy said.     

Not all suicidal thoughts are drug related. Michaels said, in his opinion, the prevalence of emotional distress among young people is a combination of a world that’s become increasingly more difficult to live in and adolescents who are less prepared to navigate its challenges.

“[Today], there are so many expectations and so many ways that you feel you’ve failed that it’s difficult to navigate,” Michaels said. “Do I believe that parental styles have contributed to students being less ready to navigate a more difficult world? Probably.”

The increasing difficulties of the modern world don’t show any signs of stopping.

Sykes’ own losses fuel his desire to let people like Jack know they aren’t alone and to end the silence surrounding mental illness.

“We have to be the generation to really normalize [mental health] and get people talking about it, because if they don’t, nothing’s going to change,” Sykes said. “And we need it to change.”