Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

PHOKUS CLP to Speak Out About Mental Health Issues

Do you have a story? That’s what the woman on the poster is asking. Her mouth is taped over, and the tape reads, “Break the Silence.” Black and white posters have popped up across campus and are asking students to share their experiences struggling with mental illness for an upcoming CLP.
Courtesy of Furman Athletics

Do you have a story? That’s what the woman on the poster is asking. Her mouth is taped over, and the tape reads, “Break the Silence.” Black and white posters have popped up across campus and are asking students to share their experiences struggling with mental illness for an upcoming CLP entitled “Speak Out” on Apr. 10 at 7 p.m. in Watkins. The CLP was planned by the peer health organization PHOKUS—Promoting Health Options through Knowledge, Understanding, and Service—as a part of their mental health awareness week beginning Apr. 8.

PHOKUS plans events that cover both physical and mental health issues, with seminars on alcohol and drug addiction to yoga classes under the stars. Events for the week will include free tai chi, yoga and meditation classes, and t-shirt and wristband sales.

Several students will speak about their experience with eating disorders, depression, anxiety, OCD and suicide. Other students have submitted testimonials anonymously, which will be read aloud during the event. A panel will comment and answer questions from the audience. Members of the panel include Dr. Natalie Braun, a school psychologist, Dr. Mike Guyton, a resident at Greenville Memorial Hospital in Internal Medicine/Pediatrics with a special interest in Adolescent Health, and Dr. Stetler, a psychology professor at Furman.

Mental illness has been discussed recently in popular culture in relation to the publicity received by David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated film Silver Linings Playbook and Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-winning performance. The film discusses mental illness in a realistic, relatable way with characters who use football and ballroom dancing as coping mechanisms. The portrayal of characters as ordinary Americans illuminates a delicate balance between our perceptions of sanity and insanity.

Hayley Cunningham, the president of PHOKUS and the photographed subject on the poster, says the CLP will address how the stigmas attached to mental illness can impede people from seeking treatment. More than 25 percent of college students suffer from mental illness. Sixty-four percent of students who drop out of school do so because of mental health related issues, according to a survey conducted by the National Alliance of Mental Illness in 2012.

The stigma attached to mental illnesses will be discussed as well as ways to reduce stigmas on campus and reach students who are less likely to seek help, such as males.

Sixty-six percent of the students treated at the Counseling Center are female, with 34 percent male.

“That ratio is consistent with the national survey data for counseling centers,” said Dr. Stephen Dawes, director of the Counseling Center.

Dr. Cinnamon Stetler of the Psychology Department credits this statistic to the gender differences in seeking treatment that she says is consistent with our society as a whole.

“The social norm is that it’s okay for women to ask for help, but it’s a sign of weakness for men to ask for help,” she said.

Across the nation, the overall number of students seeking counseling has increased during the past few years. Dawes said this trend is also true at Furman. This year, they have seen 13 percent of the student body. With 2,662 students currently enrolled, they will treat approximately 346 students this year.

He credits this to an increased awareness of mental health and also to the center’s more visible location underneath the Earle Infirmary, as opposed to the hidden door next to the dining hall.

While many counseling centers on college campuses have suffered budget cuts over the past few years, President Smolla has expanded its budget, allowing the center to increase staffing with more hours for psychiatrists and therapists. The center has four full-time staff members, including two therapists, a clinical psychologist, and a social worker specialized in clinical practice. Part-time staff includes two psychiatrists and a nutritionist/dietitian. The ratio for full-time staff to students is 1:665, which is about half the national average for small colleges, at 1:1,250.

Cunningham will be one of the student speakers. She said she feels she has a responsibility to be open about her experiences to help others feel comfortable sharing their experiences. She will discuss her diagnosis with depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder when she was in high school and the progress she has made thanks to counseling and medication. She refers to herself as “Type A,” organized, motivated someone who likes to be in control.

Cunningham says that she began to develop symptoms during the summer of 2009, after her 13-year-old cousin accidentally hung himself from playing “the choking game” by himself. The choking game attempts to cut off oxygen and blood flow to the brain to obtain a “safe” high. Teenagers and kids believe it is safe because it doesn’t involve drugs.

In the aftermath of his death, the trauma her family dealt with took center stage and overshadowed Cunningham’s depression and anxiety issues that developed over the course of the following year.

“I felt like life was falling apart. He was the closest thing I had to a brother,” she said.

She was starting her junior year in high school and felt like everything was out of control, so she responded by trying to control as many parts of her life as possible. This included controlling how much she ate and exercising every day. By the end of the summer in 2010, she had lost 25 pounds, when she hadn’t been overweight to begin with.

“My mind couldn’t rest for five seconds. Even if I had nothing to do I was rushing around in a panic all the time,” she said.

Cunningham said she didn’t tell anyone at first because she didn’t want to admit to failure and didn’t want to be a burden on her parents. She didn’t want to by judged by her peers.

“I didn’t want to be the topic of conversation,” she said.

After her dramatic weight loss, however, she was surprised and a little hurt when only her teachers asked her if anything was wrong.

“Part of me wanted my friends to ask because it would show they cared.”

Her cousin’s death made her interested in becoming an adolescent medicine specialist, experts trained to treat medical and emotional issues facing teenagers. Luckily for Cunningham, while she was interning with Dr. Hatim Omar at the Adolescent Medicine Clinic at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital, he noticed her dramatic weight loss and confronted her. He referred Cunningham to a therapist and was prescribed an anti-depressant that targets anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies. The antidepressant noticeably lessened her anxiety within the next few weeks. She began reducing her prescription this year, and has been able to stop taking medication this semester.

She remains a perfectionist but has a greater self-awareness and understanding of how to have a more balanced approach to achieving her goals. She is no longer depressed, is at a healthy weight and knows if she needs help, she has people who will support her and a place to go.

“Sharing my experiences with others brought us closer together. You can get to the heart of who you are and who they are.”

She said she still has obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but her compulsions are more like quirks, and they don’t inhibit her lifestyle. For example, she likes to have the same snack at the same time every night. As long as she accomplishes her goals, the quirks are unimportant and just part of the background.

“If it ever gets to the point where I feel my life is limited, I will make the effort to change. But for now, I’m happy the way I am.”

Cunningham said that while she has never heard a derogatory comment directed towards herself, she has heard plenty of ignorant ideas about mental illness, including misuse of the terms “bipolar” and “retarded.” She knows someone who thinks mental illness is a punishment from God. She has met people who associate medication with weakness and see it as an easy fix.

“People say that medication is overprescribed, but it doesn’t lessen the problems that require medication.”

She expressed concern about students who are dealing with mental health issues but avoid the counseling center because they are afraid of what their friends think.

“It’s a great resource. A lot of people go, but a lot more people could benefit.”

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