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Bradley University students look to further reduce stigma around mental health

Bradley University's counseling services are located in the Markin Family Student Recreation Center.
Camryn Cutinello
Bradley University's counseling services are located in the Markin Family Student Recreation Center.

Faced with a competitive job market, mounting student debt, and uncertainty about what comes next, college students can have a lot weighing on their mental health.

Active Minds is a nonprofit organization focused on promoting mental health, especially among college-aged people.

Gabi Necastro, president of Bradley University’s Active Minds chapter, said she joined the organization because of how open it allowed her to be about her own mental health.

“I come from Texas, and whenever I started to struggle with mental health in high school, I was kind of told, ‘don't talk about it,’” she said. “I was taken out of school for a little bit. They put me in a hospital and it was very much trying to keep like the tightest wraps around it. I was just supposed to be saying like I had a headache and I couldn't actually openly talk about it.”

Active Minds holds wellness events such as “No Shame in the Med Games,” where students talk and learn about psychiatric medications while painting empty pill bottles.

Necastro said students are facing a lot right now, and the chapter works to help guide them through it.

“I definitely think everything that's come out in terms of cuts and legislation, even at a national level, has students really stressed,” she said. “You have the conflict happening in the Middle East. And so it all seems to build off one another.”

Necastro said recent news surrounding cuts and layoffs at Bradley also have impacted student mental health. She said students are worried about their professors and the state of the school, as well as certain programs being cut.

Bradley has counseling services available for students. The costs are built into the health fees students pay, so there is no additional charge. But Necastra said getting an appointment can be difficult because there is a high demand.

Deborah Montgomary-Coon, director of counseling at Bradley, said the services are not designed to be long-term therapy.

“We don't have session limits. It's just based on what their needs are,” she said. “We are considered a brief solution focused, short-term type model, though. So typically students are seen for a specific issue or problem, or whatever we can help with in that moment. It's not considered long term or ongoing type therapy. It's more episodic.”

Alyssa Pagan, secretary for Active Minds, said she attends therapy outside of Bradley, but also has used the student services.

“In my family growing up, [mental health] would be mentioned, but it's not really something that we dove into a whole lot,” she said. “And I had no problem or hesitation about going to therapy on my own, even outside of Bradley, but I had attended the Counseling Services here at Bradley and I saw at least I think maybe two people max, but there's just one person who I specifically saw who was just great.”

Pagan said college students’ struggles with mental health have become more apparent since the pandemic.

A 2023 study from the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments surveyed 96,000 students from 133 college campuses. It found that 44% of college students reported symptoms of depression and 37% said they’ve experienced anxiety.

A bill introduced by State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, looks to help students by requiring public universities provide five mental health days per academic year.

Bradley is a private university, but Pagan said she hopes the school would follow suit. She said they’ve been advocating for two mental health days.

“We hear it all the time and people are like yeah, ‘I feel like I need to step back and take a mental health day,’” Pagan said. “But I feel like I cannot attend classes or I can't not complete assignments because it will be like docked, just like very strict professors. [Students] are like, ‘These mental health days would be great, because then it would allow me that time and space.’”

She said having those days means students won’t be penalized for missing class to take a mental health day, adding they’ve met with staff and administration from Bradley about adding the days, and they’re hoping to find a middle ground.

Montgomery-Coon said there could be logistical issues to adding those days, but she encourages students to treat their mental health like their physical health.

“So they need to be absent from class because they have a fever or something along that line,” she said. “I think the same reason students should be able to be absent from class if they're having a flare of their anxiety or their depression.”

She said there has been progress made to reducing the stigma around getting mental health support, and she hopes students will feel comfortable getting help.

A capstone project from four Bradley students looks to reduce that stigma even more, especially for male students. Tom Nora, one of the students behind the project, said it can be difficult for students to find resources, especially if they’re new.

He said their project will help students find those resources and share other ways they can take care of their mental health. Nora said they also want to get rid of the stigma around men getting mental health support.

“Being a guy in terms of when it comes to reaching out, that sort of thing is that, it's kind of like looked down upon,” he said.

They’re holding an event April 10 on Bradley's campus in Westlake Hall to share more information on how students can get better support for their mental health.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.