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Minds Matter

A new club helps UVM students cope with mental illness


Published January 19, 2005 at 6:34 p.m.

Maria Moore and Ellen Hansen don't look much different from other young adults their age. Sharing a pot of tea at Muddy Waters on a recent morning, they appear bright-eyed, stylishly dressed and healthy. But both Moore, a 24-year-old 2004 University of Vermont graduate, and Hansen, a 20-year-old UVM sophomore, suffer from depression, and take medication to control it. They're not alone, as anyone who works with college campus mental health services can tell you.

Mental health problems are on the rise in American society, but the situation on college campuses is particularly troubling. According to a 2003 American College Health Association survey, 45 percent of students reported feeling so depressed at some point during the academic year that they couldn't function. Of those, 10 percent had seriously considered suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age adults; mental health groups estimate that 1100 college students end their lives each year.

Colleges and universities across the country are scrambling to deal with this growing crisis. At UVM, they've found a new ally. Last November, the student government officially recognized a UVM chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. It's open to students, faculty and staff who suffer from mental illnesses, or who are interested in helping those who do. Maria Moore founded the chapter last spring; Ellen Hansen is the current president.

When school's in session, UVM's NAMI group meets every other week to provide a place where students can sound off about their struggles and support each other. They also have fun -- 15 people showed up to their last meeting to finger-paint and watch an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

But it's not just a support group -- Moore and Hansen are focused primarily on education and advocacy. They want to raise awareness of mental health issues on campus, and to give their peers -- and professors -- a better understanding of the challenges faced by afflicted students. They hope that by speaking out about their own experiences, they can reduce the shame that still surrounds the topic and keeps some students from seeking help. "I'd like people to be able to say, 'I have depression' and not have that be awkward," says Hansen. "Even now, I think there's a lot of stigma."

Founded in 1979, NAMI has chapters all across the country, including 12 in Vermont. But the grassroots nonprofit has only recently begun expanding onto campuses. UVM's group is one of just six NAMI campus clubs nationwide. Another six are in the process of forming.

Writing in the Fall 2004 issue of the group's magazine, NAMI Advocate, Affiliate Relations Manager Renata Ponichtera touts the college groups as "a perfect vehicle" for raising mental health awareness on campus. "Students know how to reach other students," she points out, "and more than anyone else, they can perceive if roommates, classmates, or friends are exhibiting signs of stress."

The next page carries a profile of Maria Moore and NAMI UVM, illustrated by a photo of Moore receiving a leadership award at a ceremony last May. The story explains how she started the group, but doesn't go into the details of her own personal struggle. Moore grew up in Burlington, and battled depression in high school. She left Vermont to attend Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, in 1999, then after a year transferred to Northeastern University in Boston. There her depression worsened, and she became anorexic.

"I would exercise for three or four hours every single day, and five hours on Saturday," she recalls. "But I was eating, like, half a cup of cereal." Later, she says, she'd throw up what she'd eaten in public restrooms.

Moore was hospitalized for anorexia in the winter of 2001. Afterward, she transferred to UVM, returning home to live with her mother, Ann. It was her mother who introduced her to NAMI -- Ann Moore had become involved with the group when another family member was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Today, Ann Moore is vice president of the board of NAMI Vermont. Hansen and Moore describe her as the UVM group's "unofficial advisor."

Direct experience motivated Moore's daughter Maria to start the group. "I honestly didn't think I was going to live through college," she admits. "It was a miracle I did. Students shouldn't have to go through that."

Her first founding move, last spring, was to organize a panel discussion on mental illness. She invited student and staff panelists, who spoke about their personal experiences with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harming behaviors, such as cutting. Moore also shared her story.

Her experiences resonated with Ellen Hansen, who attended the event. "I had never heard someone talking so openly about their eating problems," she recalls. Hansen was moved by all the speakers. "They were ordinary people you see on campus walking around, and they were telling their stories so openly. They were really telling such honest stuff."

Moore and Hansen say that getting these stories out into the open reduces the isolation students feel when they think they're suffering alone. Peter Spitzform, a faculty librarian who serves as the group's advisor, agrees. He was also on the panel last spring. He spoke about his own experiences with depression, which span many years. "It's hard, forcing the energy for things that on their face look pretty straightforward," he says. "Just going through the mail. Having to correspond with people when you just feel like crawling under a rock."

Spitzform praises the students who spoke with him on the panel, and other students he's encountered through NAMI. "They're wildly courageous," he says. "I have the most amazing respect for them. These are students who are 19, 21 years old. It was absolutely ... moving, to hear what they've struggled with in their lives, in the hope that people might see them and get help."

Spitzform says that often people resist seeking help because they feel that others blame them for what they're feeling. "For example," he says, "if you're struggling to get out of bed in the morning, [society tells you] it's obviously your fault." He says that college students, away from home for the first time -- and far from familiar support networks -- are easily overwhelmed. "It's hard to reach out," he observes.

But Derek George, a counselor at UVM's Counseling Center and liaison to NAMI UVM, says that many UVM students are reaching out and getting the counseling they need. He reports that the school's two counseling offices see 1500 patients a year, or roughly 15 percent of the student body. Both Moore and Hansen consult private counselors.

George says he's glad NAMI UVM is getting the word out to students that counseling services are useful, and available. "Hav-ing students on campus raising awareness and fighting the stigma is great," he says. "Once something is understood, people are willing to put resources out there to grapple with it...it's just getting all this into the light."

Moore and Hansen are generally pleased with the resources UVM allocates to mental health, although they'd like to see Residential Advisors receive more training about warning signs. According to George, RAs currently go through three to four days of training in August, and another two to three days in January. Hansen also plans to hold more panel discussions -- a second panel last fall drew a good crowd, and Hansen's planning another for the spring.

She'd like to see more Vermont colleges start student NAMI chapters. But not all schools can meet the prerequisite: self-reflection. "No one really wants to admit that they have students on their campuses that are suffering," she says.