• Changing the Conversation

    Active Minds Seeks to Reduce the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

By Anne Hartman

Madeline Klinger’s first quarter at UChicago was filled with uncertainty. She was lonely, and acclimating to campus life didn’t come as easily as she’d expected. Being unfamiliar with her professors’ grading styles, she thought she was failing her classes. And while she was struggling to adapt, her peers seemed to undergo the transition to college life with ease.

Klinger eventually visited Student Counseling Service (SCS), where she received treatment for depression, which she was diagnosed with in high school. The visits helped, and UChicago slowly started to feel like home. Still, something was missing. Klinger wanted to talk with her peers about the experience, but knew a conversation about mental health was a complicated one to have.  

“I wanted some kind of group where people could be more open about mental health instead of wanting to keep up this brave face and act like you’re doing really well when you’re not,” Klinger says. “Especially because not talking about it makes that sense of loneliness when you’re struggling so much worse.”

Klinger turned to staff at Health Promotion and Wellness (HPW), who connected her with other students who had expressed interest in speaking out about mental health issues. HPW staff suggested they start an Active Minds chapter.

Active Minds is a national nonprofit organization that supports 448 chapters throughout the United States and internationally. The organization “empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help seeking.” Alison Malmon, who was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania when she started the organization, knows the pain untreated depression can cause all too well. Her brother Brian hid symptoms of depression and psychosis for years before committing suicide as a college student.

The UChicago chapter of Active Minds became a Registered Student Organization in 2014 and aims to spark conversations around mental health, “letting people know that they’re not alone and that struggling with mental health is a legitimate problem, so that it’s not such an invisible issue,” says Klinger, who is now president of the organization.

While Active Minds isn’t a peer counseling group, part of their goal is to educate peers about SCS and other resources and to reduce the barriers to seeking help.

Individuals encounter these barriers for a variety of reasons, says Emily Carter, a staff psychologist for SCS. Some can’t afford services, while others fear they’ll be perceived as weak for seeking help. SCS aims to simplify the steps students take to receive treatment; diagnostic assessments and short-term treatment—among other services—are covered by the Student Life Fee, for example. Active Minds further reduces these barriers by giving insight into how students can seek help for mental illness on campus and “normalizing” the process, Carter says.

“By having Active Minds on campus, I think that encourages students to talk about mental health,” adds Katie O’Connell, assistant director for HPW. “By having more education at the peer level about our services, about mental illness, and even about how to help a friend when they’re feeling low or struggling, that is an impactful tool to encourage help seeking, to encourage awareness, and change the culture on campus.”

Since its start, Active Minds has been working to help make the campus more aware of mental health. The group marked the national organization’s Day Without Stigma in October by passing out green ribbons in support of those struggling with mental illness. On Bartlett Quad, they posted 100 colored flags, with 59 red flags representing the 59 percent of college students who reported feeling lonely.

To promote a healthy lifestyle, Active Minds emphasizes relaxation during the always-hectic reading periods each quarter. The group’s Study Break Oasis in Regenstein Library offers tea, snacks, and stress-relieving activities like coloring, Play-Doh, and popping bubble wrap.

“It’s not healthy to maintain a stressful lifestyle 24/7, and you don’t need to be constantly productive,” Klinger says. “You’re allowed to take breaks.”

To further extend their reach, Active Minds is partnering with other groups on campus. During Winter Quarter, they collaborated with Axis UChicago, a Community Service RSO “dedicated to raising awareness about dis/ability and changing the way dis/ability is perceived” to host See Through Stigma Week. The collaboration, Klinger says, was natural. While the groups serve different populations, both are working to help students comfortably associate with their identities if they have a mental illness or a disability.  

The week included a resource fair featuring groups that could build protective factors against mental illness and assist students with disabilities, such as Student Disability Services, Spiritual Life, Student Health and Counseling Services, and Physical Education and Athletics. With the Poloroid Project, the groups invited students to take snapshots and caption the photos with how they’re truly feeling, discouraging the typical response that everything is “fine.”

In another collaboration, Active Minds supported Kitchen Sink, an arts group on campus, to host a pop-up mental health museum in the Cornell Florist on 55th Street. The museum featured artists’ perceptions of mental health. The exhibit included photos from Klinger’s Instagram feed, which, she says, is part of her effort to be more open about her feelings. On the social media channel popular for its filtered view of life, Klinger gives her honest take, posting photos of the mundane but inevitable aspects of life to dispel illusions that social media often creates.

For Klinger, taking on the role as a mental health advocate has been a rewarding challenge.

“It’s a role I’m comfortable with,” she says. “It’s given me a new identity that I’m proud of and want to share. It’s been a huge relief because I didn’t know how it was going to be accepted, but people on campus really support us and love what we’re doing.”

Her advice to UChicago students wanting to boost their mental health: stop comparing yourself to others.

“Success on paper is the most measurable, but it’s not necessarily the most meaningful,” Klinger says. “As a college campus, we should applaud each other more for just being good people.”