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Dear Bowdoin, what is awareness?

February 28, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Dalia Tabachnik

This week, the Bowdoin Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (BSAAC) rolled out a week’s worth of programming dedicated to Mental Health Awareness Week. The offerings are a veneer of help. In terms of awareness, there isn’t much, but, oh yes! There are dogs and free pub food! Is this awareness? Is this what Bowdoin needs? Awareness on any issue comes in different forms. While Peer Health has approached awareness of health resources in a great way—a subtle, yet noticeable, poster campaign in Smith Union, one of Bowdoin’s buildings with the heaviest foot traffic—BSAAC’s approach to mental health awareness falls flat on many fronts. It exacerbates my frustration with how we approach conversations on mental health here at Bowdoin. For some, therapy dogs work, but for others—might I say, a majority of students—it does not.

Mental health is omnipresent in my life. It ebbs and it flows, both daily and seasonally. My worst days under the summer’s sunshine would be the best while slogging through winter. It’s hard. I am dependent on scheduling my life out in order to have control over each day, and I am very reliant on medications, something that is often sheepishly talked about even when discussing mental health. For me, this is mental health awareness—not dogs, not pub food, not yoga or meditation.

Mental health awareness is bringing light to the reality of what a percentage of the Bowdoin community, the Brunswick community, your friends and your family experience—every day, week and month. Awareness is normalizing conversation, it is building healthy ways to digest information on issues and ideas that we would normally feel uncomfortable talking about. Awareness is education, and it is supported by facts, figures and personal anecdotes. Did you know mental illness is disproportionate across different identities and backgrounds? While 19 percent of all adults experience any mental illness in a 12-month span, 37 percent of LGBTQ adults are afflicted in the same timeframe. Similarly, non-white college students are largely affected by prevalent mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Arab/Arab American students report the highest shares of these illnesses, at 24.5 percent and 23.9 percent, respectively, while 15.8 percent and 17.8 percent of white students report experiencing depression and anxiety, respectively. The statistics are endless and gut-wrenching, but, unfortunately, they are a reality.

I have spent so much of my time at Bowdoin thinking about how to describe my personal experiences with mental health. Some days, I abhor the idea of leaving my room. Other days, I am as exuberant and cheerful as a toddler. Some days, scheduling my waking hours allows for a sense of ease. Other days, the schedules trigger a spiral of anxious thoughts—“Is this where I need to be? Should I be with my friends? Do my friends hate me?” At a certain point, the onus is not on me to explain everything all the time, partly because effects of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—the United States’ most prevalent mental illnesses—are varied and manifest in such different ways. As Bowdoin students, we ought to educate ourselves. Before we critique the College’s resources or the lack thereof, we should all, individually, be able to understand early warning signs of mental illness such as self-harm impulses, noticeable weight gain/loss and/or excessive use of alcohol and drugs.

So, what is awareness? Is it offering free pub foods, or is it providing more therapy dogs? Awareness should be synonymous with education—it is not hard. Let’s begin by normalizing these issues—that includes acknowledging that 50 percent of mental illness begins by the age 14, 75 percent by age 24. Let’s begin by understanding the facts about the tip of the iceberg because there is much more happening deeper down. We owe ourselves the ability to look out for one another, as a Bowdoin community, as friends and simply as people. Check in on your friends; never cease to tell people you love them, and continue to educate yourself.

BSAAC, I ask that you tweak your approach. Some of these programs might be helpful to a portion of the student body, but your goal of awareness is not supported by what you offered.

Manlio Calentti is a member of the Class of 2020.

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