The Mental Illness and Neurological Disorders Foundation (MINDS) is attempting to spark discussion at the University on the stigmatization of mental illness. On Thursday, April 18, the group will host a discussion featuring panelists who work with mental illness, including University Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Dr. Jennifer D’Andrea and Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Behavior Matthew Kurtz.

The MINDS Foundation, founded in 2010 by Raghu Appasani ’12, aims to eliminate the stigma of mental illness in rural areas of India, where many locals lack access to treatment. The mission of the University’s chapter is to combat stigmatization at the University and in Middletown.

Appasani will moderate the panel.

“I suggested that [the University’s chapter of MINDS] do something like this over WesFest because the majority of our support or interest from alumni or students at Wesleyan comes from these sorts of Wes seminars or panels,” Appasani said. “We don’t want to just focus on fundraising. We want to give people more of an idea of what we do and why we’re doing it.”

Appasani explained that he intends to open the discussion with introductions of the panelists. The panelists will then focus on what attracted them to the field of mental health, what they consider to be the largest local issues concerning mental health awareness, and potential solutions. The audience will then be given the opportunity to ask questions.

Co-Presidents of the University’s chapter of MINDS Ian Johnson ’13 and Shyam Desai ’15 helped organize the event.

“Since the beginning of the semester we’ve wanted to have a panel…to start some sort of discussion on mental illness and possibly to make the Wesleyan community aware of the situation and get them involved in the discussion as well,” Desai said. “We thought WesFest would be the perfect time to do it.”

Desai explained that the topic of the panel, stigmatization of mental illness, is not focused  merely on the trend as it exists in India but also on ways in which it is manifested in the local community.

“Many people don’t think about the issue, but it’s huge on a college campus,” Desai said.

Appasani hopes that the forum will help further understanding and engagement on campus.

“I want more people to stay engaged with the issue and to recognize that it is such a big issue and that it’s a growing issue that’s getting worse and needs more attention,” Appasani said. “We know that from recent events that are sparking conversation of changing policies, but [the stigmatization]’s not really going anywhere.”

Kurtz, who recently visited the hospital in India with which MINDS has a partnership, has similar hopes for the outcome of the panel.

“I think it would be wonderful just to educate people who are at the panel about mental illness so that they have a sense of what it is, so that they have a sense of what our clients are up against in terms of stigma, and also to understand that it is a worldwide problem, and [that] there’s an organization at Wesleyan that’s trying to address it,” he said.

Kurtz explained that he was eager to take part in the panel because of his own experiences with patients who suffer from mental illness. In his own research, Kurtz focuses on cognitive difficulties among people with schizophrenia.

“The issue of stigma in mental illness is definitely something that’s very close to my heart,” Kurtz said. “I’ve devoted basically my life to studying [schizophrenia]. I feel for the clients and the difficulties they have negotiating everyday life and the stigma that they experience in everyday life with the disease.”

In an email to The Argus, D’Andrea described her personal motivation to participate in the panel, explaining that throughout her four years with CAPS, she has noticed that students consistently compare themselves to what she calls the “ideal Wesleyan student.”

“This imaginary student takes five courses per semester and always gets As, lines up amazing summer internships, juggles four or five extracurricular commitments every semester, has deeply satisfying personal relationships as well as an amazing social life, and never feels anxiety, stress, sadness, indecision, or disappointment,” D’Andrea wrote. “When students struggle with depression or anxiety, and feel too low or too overwhelmed to complete assignments or attend classes, or when they feel lonely and isolated because they haven’t made close personal connections, they believe they are the only ones….Stigma reduction means teaching people that they are not alone.”

D’Andrea expressed concerns that because of the stigma attached to mental illness, many people, including students at the University, do not seek treatment. Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and member of the MINDS advisory board Maya Prahbu explained that she has similar concerns.

“I hope that people will realize that stigmatization is not just a problem in other countries but continues to be an issue even in local communities in that all people are the same,” Prahbu said. “No one wants to be labeled as ‘crazy,’ and everyone recognizes that, while they may have mental health problems, getting treatment will often result in them being viewed differently by friends or family or colleagues in their community, and so people not just in the U.S. but certainly abroad tend to delay treatments. [This] is unfortunate.”

Johnson stated that he sees mental illness as an often-ignored, global issue.

“[The discussion] will definitely be insightful for everyone involved,” he said. “It’s something that people don’t think about much, but it definitely affects [everyone].”

Appasani hopes that the conversation on mental illness will continue after the panel ends.

“I think it would just be really cool to keep a conversation going afterwards and really get the audience involved,” he said. “I just want people to step away thinking about it and keep the conversation going around the issue.”

The panel will be held on Thursday, April 18 at 7 p.m. in Fisk 302.

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