November 9, 2014

Student Assembly Mental Health Event Provides Peer Discussion

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Students gathered Sunday for the second annual CUnique conference, an event aimed at celebrating neurodiversity and de-stigmatizing mental health on campus.

The conference was organized by the Community Life Committee of the Student Assembly, which aims to improve campus and residential life for students, according to Kritika Oberoi ’16, a member of the committee.

According to Emma Johnston ’16, College of Arts and Sciences representative for the S.A., the program set out to educate students about mental health.

“Our goal is to help people understand that it’s normal to feel stressed and okay to ask for help,” said Johnston, another member of the Community Life Committee.

The program featured two speakers, some performances and a discussion at the end.

The first speaker was Randy Patterson of the Cornell Healthy Eating Program, who spoke about eating disorders and the bio-psycho-social model of factors that contribute to unhealthy eating habits. She also discussed different ways of addressing eating issues.

“I talk to people all the time who come in and say, ‘I am terrified for my friend, I don’t know what to do,’” Patterson said. “When talking to a person who’s struggling, I have found that it’s most helpful to really think about eating behavior as so not about food, [and] so about an emotional reality … and suffering that’s there.”

“Our goal is to help people understand that it’s normal to feel stressed and okay to ask for help.” — Emma Johnston ’16

The second speaker, Stephanie Ellman, a public health fellow from Gannett Health Services, spoke about the different resources available to students at Cornell. She also discussed preemptive measures students can take to reduce stress, such as taking purposeful breaks, engaging in self-reflection and creating digital boundaries to disconnect from technology.

“In addition to our physical bags, we have what I like to think of as our invisible backpack. This is where we’re carrying things like our deadlines, our concerns, our expectations for ourselves and our stress,” Ellman said. “[At Gannett] we talk about taking purposeful breaks. What we mean by this is intentionally putting down the stress of your invisible backpack and doing something rejuvenating and fun.”

Oberoi pointed to the final segment of the conference, where participants broke into small groups to discuss mental illness, as the most successful element.

“People were touching on some key mental health concerns in different communities and developing solutions for them,” Oberoi said. “A member of the Student Assembly spoke to me about resolutions that could be formed on that basis of the discussion that took place. In my opinion, conversation that results in tangible change is very valuable.”

Carolina Bieri ’16, an attendee, agreed that the discussion was helpful, especially for reducing the stigma of mental illness.

“I think there are more people on this campus struggling with mental illness than many of us realize,” Bieri said. “If we work towards achieving open-mindedness about these issues and realize that they are not as abnormal as everyone thinks, then maybe we can help make things less of a struggle.”

Bieri added that the discussion was successful in showing that mental health issues affect all kinds of communities, “no matter where you come from or who you are.”

“I have also gone through some rough times myself and know that it would have been a lot easier had I known that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through,” she said.