Minding Minds

When students break a bone or have the flu, they immediately seek medical attention. When students start suffering from mental illnesses they hesitate. The stigmatization surrounding mental health is widely recognized, yet still remains an issue.

    Two stigmas or attitudes surround mental health. One is a self perceived stigma, in which the individual casts judgement against themselves and mental health. The second is a public stigma which can be further divided into an overall societal stigma, society as a whole; or as a perceived public stigma or an individual’s perceptions of what society feels toward mental health.

    “It is the barrier of feeling weak,” Heidi Petracco, Associate Director of the USF Counseling Center said. “We like to feel strong and in control and when we ask can be difficult. It is like asking for directions.”

    One in every four adults will experience a mental health illness, yet only a few in this percentage actually seek treatment or help.

    “ I think everyone needs to understand that mental health issues are not something that people can help,” Brooke Castle, an USF student said. “ It is something that they are born with, just like I am born with freckles. It is not our fault that we have low dopamine or low serotonin levels.”

    The most prevalent illnesses students will face in this age group and specifically in college are anxiety and depression.     

Anxiety is the experience of worrying too much or the fear of judgment and embarrassment. This means having racing thoughts constantly about things out of your control such as the future. There are also physical impairments such as an accelerated heart rate or palpitations, chest pains and nausea.

    Depression is apathy toward daily life functions and is quite different from the stigma of being “overly emotional or dramatic” or “weak”. It is a serious mental illness that if gone untreated can result in consequences such as suicide, self-harm and health risks.

    Petracco noted that asking for help for these illnesses is a sign of strength. The underlying problem is that students are still finding it hard to believe this, so the only way to prove this is through spreading awareness and changing the stigma. A stigma that some students at the University of South Florida is still explicitly present.

A USF Psychology major, Noel Harris shared what she believes the stigma entails.

“Personally I think it is the way that mental health is treated,” Harris said. “It is not treated the same way as a physical illness even though a lot of the same symptoms can occur and it can still affect someone in the same way a physical illness can.”

A USF Cellular and Molecular Biology major, Brooke Castle gave her opinion as well.

“ Most people see it as a negative thing to be on anti-anxiety pills, anti-depressant pills, bipolar pills or basically any medication that can be therapeutic such as talking to a psychologist or speaking your mind,” Brooke Castle said. “There is a very bad stigma with that because everyone thinks you’re crazy or insane or need a straight jacket if we are going to extreme terms.”

Zanifa Darville, a USF Mass Communications major, corroborated this as well. “It is kind of frowned on, like you are not supposed to have them because that means you are not normal,” Darville said. “It is a problem because it isn’t a thing or shouldn’t be a thing or that you are making it up.”

    The next step would be to look at how to inform students and approach them in a way that can change the culture on a school level. There are many resources on campus such as the USF Counseling Center, health services and student groups such as Out of the Dark, A Life Worth Living and Active Minds. This is in addition to the health screenings and other national resources linked on the counseling center’s online portal.

    Even with access to resources, students may still feel disinclined to reach out or not feel responsibility of being aware of mental health illnesses. Darville wasn’t even sure where to go for more information.

“I feel as far as giving people access to resources USF is on the very high end, but I feel that there is enough of stigma to where people don’t want to take advantage of them,” Harris said.

    It was shared by all of the students interviewed that if mental health awareness was normalized in society, then there would be more success in outreach and treatment.

    One way discussed was through education, which is what the USF counseling center seeks to do. They do this through workshops, appointments and through informational booths. On their website they also have online screenings, apps and games to help relieve stress or cope with symptoms of mental health illnesses.

One workshop that the USF Counseling Center does is during orientation before the first year at USF, in which they discuss health in all aspects and stress. When asked about this, students felt it hard to recall that workshop as opposed to other focused areas such as alcohol, drug and sexual abuse and sexual health.

“I know there was a video on sex and there was something on being stressed,” Castle shared.

Castle is referring to the “Tea Consent” video. This simplifies the concept of sexual consent in a lighter, memorable way. This video was also successfully remembered by other students when questioned about orientation.

Alcohol and drug abuse was also a topic that remembered more because of the mandatory online modules that students had to complete for their freshmen year requirements. This could also be because of the additional focus at orientation Some students believe differentiating mental health as so would improve awareness and normalcy.

“I think it would help a lot,” Castle said. “So people don’t feel alone.”

As associate director, Petracco had insight to why combining topics such as physical health like diet and mental health issues like stress in this manner at orientation is effective.

“It is important to link mental health awareness to overall health awareness because it is all connected,” Petracco said. “If we separate it, we might increase the stigma instead of making it as normal as other health concerns.”

Further research would need to be conducted on this to effectively reach a conclusion between the two views.

There is a mental health stigma in society and is apparent in students at USF. In order to change this, students must feel responsible for their mental health just as much as their physical health. As shared, it is all interconnected.

With her six years of experience at USF, Petracco has noted a positive trend that is optimistic.

“What I see reducing is the idea of having difficulty with emotions makes you a crazy person,” Petracco said.

This trend is hoped to increase in the future. With the wealth of resources available at USF, students have the proper treatment and solutions at their dispose with complete confidentiality. Spreading awareness of this and normalizing mental health illnesses will eradicate the stigma.


    For more information or to reach out for help, contact the USF Counseling at : (813)974-2831 or visit http://www.usf.edu/student-affairs/counseling-center/.

    For more information on how to help change the stigma surrounding mental health, please visit http://changedirection.org