The Heart of the Matter: Northwestern's Stigma Panel

The seats in Harris 107 were filled with students from different backgrounds and majors on Wednesday, Nov. 20 for NU Active Minds’ fourth annual Stigma panel. Despite their differences, they were all focused on the same goal, the promotion of conversation about mental illness and working towards its destigmatization. In his opening remarks, Professor Robin Nusslock, the event’s master of ceremonies, described the issue of mental health as one that is both “heartwarming [and] heartbreaking.” These words, while not the central focus of the evening’s conversation, may have provided the most apt description of not only the general topic of mental health, but also Northwestern’s place in this ongoing discussion.


It was heartbreaking to know that this event took place less than a month after the suicides of two former NU students. It was heartbreaking to hear the panelists detailing their struggles with both mental health and the stigma that so often accompanies it. “People don’t really understand it [mental illness] like it’s a broken arm,” said Pat Beecher a junior in the School of Communications, and one of the four panelists as he recounted his story of dealing with anxiety and a learning disability.  

“Every day I was terrified,” said Jodi Naglie when describing her struggles with anorexia and anxiety.

It was hard to hear that  a lack of understanding on such a prevalent topic still exists.  “In this society there’s way too much of an ‘Oh, tough it out’ philosophy or ‘That’s not a real disability,’ well, the law says it is, our office says it is,” said Dr. Alison May, Assistant Director for Services for Students with Disabilities, which also serves as a resource for students with mental illnesses. Listening to Dr. Nusslock reading the staggering statistics on mental health and suicide from the World Health Organization– hearing that suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, and depressive disorders are the leading cause of disability in the world–could cast a dark cloud on even the most optimistic of minds. But every cloud has a silver lining. And although the Stigma panel was at times sobering, there were also times where its tone echoed Dr. Nusslock’s sentiment that mental illness could be a subject that can warm hearts just as often as it breaks them.


It was heartwarming to see four students bravely confess their struggles with mental illness to a room filled with their peers, some friends, and some strangers. It was fun to see Pat Beecher, having come to terms with his battle, use humor to describe his healing process, exclaiming at one point that “Therapy is pretty awesome!” It was heartwarming to hear Medill senior Danielle Oberdier talk about how she uses her love of knitting to raise awareness about mental health with her company AK Kerani. Even hearing senior Matt Multach's wise advice: "The first step is admitting you have a problem, " showed the maturity and accountability that having an issue with mental health could teach.   To watch students hug and reassure each other at the end of the event, after the lights had gone up, and the final round of applause had died down was a beautiful,  and encouraging sight. It is both heartwarming and exciting to know that Northwestern has made strides towards improving its conversation about mental health, and that these strides have not gone unnoticed. This month, NU Active Minds was awarded the Margaret Clark Morgan Transformational Change Award for “Achieving Lasting Policy Change to Improve Student Mental Health on Campus.” This award shows both how far Northwestern has come on the issue of mental health, and how far it can go. “It reminds us that we have done a lot. [It] gives us hope that we can continue making a change,” said Naina Desai, a senior and co-president of NU Active Minds.


In its efforts to continue making a change, Northwestern is also trying to make sure that incoming students know the resources that are available to them, and also that it is okay to talk about mental health on campus. On Sept. 22, Northwestern hosted its first Essential NU on mental health, during this year’s Wildcat Welcome. The event’s guest speaker, Jordan Burnham, was given a standing ovation, and the NU community deemed the event a success. “No incoming student going forward now can say that they never heard about CAPS, or the mental health resources at Northwestern,” said Dr. John Dunkle, Executive Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).


Beyond spreading the word on campus, Northwestern has done and is continuing to do something great by having events like the Stigma Panel, which show, not only the resources available to students, but also that students no matter how it may seem, are really not alone. That anywhere they turn, a friend is there to help them out.  “Just talk about it, even if it’s just to one person. Remember that you are still as much a Northwestern student as anyone else,”  Desai said. So,  while mental illness and its more negative consequences may be difficult and at times saddening to talk about, this year's panel reminds us that hope exists and that the success stories can be just as prevalent as the depressing, cautionary tales. This alone, should let us know that stigma should not exist, for as long as we open our hearts, they can never truly be broken.