UMD students step out of their comfort zones and explore the topic of mental health

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By Danielle Kiefer

Students gathered in the Maryland Food Co-op Nov. 17 to discuss something that not everyone is comfortable talking openly about: mental health.

Scholars Promoting and Revitalizing Care (SPARC), a student-led group launched out of the College Parks Scholars Program, hosted a mental health open mic night. In addition to their open mic nights, they also lead events such as yoga nights, guided meditations and discussions about self-care and mental health.

“Everyone on SPARC executive board was talking about how stigma really hurts people’s experience with mental health, and how it can actually stop them from seeking help or talking to other people,” senior physiology and neurobiology major and SPARC vice president Alyssa Schledwitz said. “We wanted to create a safe space, where everyone can get together and talk amongst themselves.”

The Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) and Active Minds also sponsored the event. SHAC is an organization that acts as a student liaison to the University Health Center. According to sophomore neurobiology and physiology major and SHAC member Nancy Zheng, it provides student representation for complaints or feedback related to the health center.

Active Minds is a nonprofit organization that “empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking,” according to its website.

During the event, students who had signed up could perform poetry, music, spoken word or just share their stories relating to mental health. Speakers were assured that everything they said would remain confidential and would not be repeated outside of the space. After a short intermission, audience members had the opportunity to speak as well.

“We hope that people will have a new appreciation of what other people or their acquaintances might be going through, but don’t necessarily talk about,” Schledwitz said.

Approximately one in five adults in the U.S. will experience mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The students in SPARC came up with the idea to have a mental health open mic night last semester, and held their first one in April.

“A lot of people came out and shared things that we normally wouldn’t talk about in public,” Schledwitz said.

After attending the event last semester, sophomore biology and Russian major Vera Yevsukov decided to come to open mic night again this year.

“I thought it was really nice how candid it was, and I really enjoyed it, so I’m hoping I experience that again this year,” Yevsukov said.

Schledwitz emphasized that college students in particular should be talking about and focusing on mental health.

“We want to bring awareness to how important it is to take care of your mental health, even when you’re in college, and your priorities might be more on academics and your social life,” Schledwitz said.

In a NAMI survey of college students with mental illnesses, 64 percent of respondents said they stopped attending college due to a mental health related reason. Of those students, over 45 percent said they did not receive accommodations and/or don’t have access to mental health services and supports.

Schledwitz hopes that ultimately, events like the open mic night can decrease the stigma around mental health and inspire policy changes to make mental health care more accessible to college students.

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