Approximately 10.2 million adults nationwide have co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders, with three-quarters of all chronic mental illness beginning by age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Despite the issue’s prevalence, many Westminster College students facing mental health concerns for the first time may not know where to go for support because of the stigma around mental illness—which inspired senior sociology major Josie White to create a NAMI club on campus.
“NAMI is the largest grassroots organization in the U.S. dealing with mental illness and health related issues,” said White, the club’s president. “As an on-campus branch of NAMI, our goal is to bring mental health advocacy and awareness to campus, as well as [create] a safe space for students to be open about their experiences.”
White said she was motivated to bring NAMI to Westminster to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness, as well as because of her own personal experiences.
“When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while in my first year of college, I felt incredibly alone,” White said. “Since then, I’ve been able to turn my experience into advocacy and use it for positive change. NAMI has truly been lifesaving for me, and I wanted to extend the opportunities offered to me to other students at Westminster.”
White said she hopes having a NAMI club on campus will provide a safe place for people to learn about and discuss mental health.
“We don't talk about [mental health] because we're supposed to be these perfect happy people all the time, when people aren’t perfect,” said Chloe Roghaar, a junior public health major and NAMI’s vice president. “Our goal is that by destigmatizing the mental illnesses that people have and being aware that people are normal and that they are working through it then people can become more comfortable with it.”
White said she wants NAMI to provide new ideas about mental health so those living with a mental illness and those who know someone who does can understand how to best approach the situation. NAMI club meetings include mental health exercises, discussions, film screenings, guest speakers and service projects.
“It’s more a of a community,” White said. “We also want to be advocates to help people, and
we’re working on a partnership with the state office of NAMI with their new NAMI Young Adults program. They’re using our constitution as a basis for their own. There will be tons of opportunities to connect and help with other service projects within the organization. The club is open to everybody because one in five people [has] a mental illness. We’re here for the one in five and the four in five.”
Westminster is the first of its kind when it comes to incorporating young adults into the NAMI program, according to NAMI spokesperson Carlos Morgan.
“There is not a lot of outreach to young adults,” Morgan said. “[Within NAMI] there is a faction of people who don't get as much help as they could. The NAMI Young Adults effort is trying to bridge the gap. NAMI Young Adults does not exist in any other state, and it is coming out of Utah of all places. We’re calling it cutting edge, as it could catch on nationally.”
White and Roghaar both said they hope they can bring some good to the taboo topic.
“One of the biggest things we say at NAMI as a comparison to help people understand how mental health should be treated is that you never tell a diabetic to stop taking their insulin and tell them to get over it,” White said. “Why would you do that to someone who has a mental illness? Especially where there a proved differences in the brains of people who have a mental illness just like any physical disorder. There is a biological and chemical structural basis for the differences. Telling someone to pick themselves up by the bootstraps [is] not only ineffective—it can be offensive.”