Introduction: You are listening to the Duke University Parent and Family Programs Podcast.
Maggie: Hello, my name is Maggie Peterson from the Office of Parent and Family Programs at Duke University. We are here today with Gary from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, also known as NAMI, on campus at Duke University. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness and is recognized as an official undergraduate organization here on campus. Thanks for being here today! Could you please tell us your full name, hometown, major, and class year?
Gary: My name is Gary Wang. I am from Bothell, Washington, just 30 minutes north of Seattle. I’m a senior studying neuroscience and health policy, and I’m the president of NAMI at Duke.
Maggie: Great, thank you. I’d love to start by discussing NAMI on campus here at Duke. Could you describe the mission of NAMI for us?
Gary: The mission of NAMI is really to open the dialogue about mental illness. We know that mental illness is so stigmatized, especially in the United States and especially among young people—we don’t like to talk so much about our insecurities, our anxieties. Especially on a college campus like Duke, it’s so important that we talk about these issues because they can manifest in really unfortunate and ugly ways and can result in a lot of tragedies that could be avoidable if we had a more open campus culture and did more to improve the mental health and well-being of our students. What we really do is host events, host panels, try to raise awareness of these issues, bring forth personal student stories so that other students feel comfortable sharing their own experiences, and in general just create a more inclusive, open dialogue about mental health.
Maggie: You started to touch on this but could you describe more about what NAMI does on campus? I know there have been vigils in the past.
Gary: NAMI does—we are very active in terms of campus events. We try to stay—be an active presence on campus because mental health isn’t an issue that stops and goes. It is something that everyone is dealing with on an ongoing basis. We do quite a bit throughout the semester. For example, earlier in September, in honor of Suicide Prevention Day, we held a mental health awareness candlelight vigil on the Bryan Center Plaza. For that event, we actually solicited student stories about experiences with mental health. It may or may not have been related explicitly to suicide or suicidal ideation but all around these themes of depression or feeling like they were in a hole or not really knowing what to do. That was a really powerful event because we were just out in the public plaza at night with candles all around us. Around sixty students just showed up and sat down on the plaza. We had both anonymous and stories read by the actual author, which was really brave and courageous of them. I think it just showed that there is a craving for public discussion on these issues of suicide and depression, especially on college campuses because it’s such a salient issue. That was one of the most important events we’ve done this semester, and it’s something that we’ve done for a few years running right now in the past. I’m glad we were able to continue that. We also do lots of other events. November was actually Mental Health Awareness Month, hosted by us, and so we did a whole range of events, from a tabling event called Donuts and Notes, which is personally my favorite event because we just bring free Monuts to the BC plaza, and people can get a free donut for writing a nice, supportive letter to a friend. And then we go to the post office and deliver those letters for them. People are really surprised by the premise when they come to our table because we’re yelling, “Free donuts. Come get free donuts.” They’re like, “What do we have to do for it.” They’re very suspicious. And then we just say, “Write a nice letter.” And then they’re like “Oh, that’s really nice.” It’s surprising how little of that we have on campus, in terms of everything seems to be kind of transactional: do something for someone else, expect something in return. But we really want to flip that paradigm on its head: give kindness and be generous and loving without expecting anything in return. I think that’s something we really need to build into the culture of our campus if we’re really going to try to change the mental health and wellbeing of our students. We do that, and we’ve done movie screenings and panels with psychiatrists and our director of CAPS and different experts. So, we’re doing all sorts of things all the time.
Maggie: You also started touching on this, which is awesome, but why do you think NAMI has been so successful? It’s won awards, it’s been featured in national newspapers—why do you think it’s going so well?
Gary: I think NAMI’s been so successful because it’s been a true—like a community effort. I have a wonderful team of 10 executive members and an engaged student membership of about 30 members. We’re always just working together and collaboratively and openly to figure out what are the needs of campus and how do we best address those needs, whether it’s through individual outreach or through events, or promoting awareness of connections to our counseling and psychological services department, or CAPS for short. The fact that mental health is just an issue that touches us all on a daily basis—we can all relate to having those ups and downs, or
for many people actually being stuck in what feels like a rut for a long time and not feeling like there’s anyone to turn to or not wanting to burden someone else with your own struggles or troubles. There’s a real craving on campus for that kind of connection and for people
to feel embraced and welcomed and loved. And that’s really what we try to bring to campus.
Maggie: At this point, I’d love to shift and discuss mental health on campus here at Duke just in general. Could you share what resources are available to Duke students concerned with mental health that you know of?
Gary: Of course, NAMI is always a great student resource for other students, but we have a ton of resources across the board for students with any kind of concern or need. So, I’d say, first and foremost, our CAPS department is absolutely incredible. Dr. Oakley is the director of CAPS. We have actually monthly meetings with her at students to talk about mental health and wellness on campus. She’s super receptive and open to learning more about how CAPS can improve, and they’ve done so much to expand access to getting into CAPS because people have had concerns about wait times or not getting in with the provider that they wanted. But they’ve really done a lot to change that, and I think there’s an incredible amount of resources at CAPS. I strongly encourage students to look at their website, contact Dr. Oakley or other providers at CAPS, and see what might be a good fit. I’d also say that there’s a range of concerns or troubles that students might have, so if it’s more on the academic side, academic deans and counselors are always there to help. I think students are sometimes afraid to reach out and express any kind of questions or concerns, but they love answering questions and helping students get on the right track. If it’s more of a concern of stress with academics or not feeling like they’re able to keep up, I think that’s a great resource. On the other hand, we have the Women’s Center, we have all sorts of identity groups on campus—whether it’s related to ethnic and racial identity or sexual orientation and gender identity—there’s really a group for everyone to find a community and find people that share their own backgrounds or interests or stories. I’d really encourage students to just look around them because I think it’s so easy to hole up in our dorm rooms or kind of just keep our feelings locked up. But when we actually look around us, there are so many students who share our same stories.
Maggie: How can Duke students be allies for students struggling with mental health?
Garry: The first part is being open that mental health, or mental unhealth, is a problem and that we act in small, sometimes imperceptible ways that impact that kind of culture that we’re creating. This idea of effortless perfection that is often so prevalent on campus. That’s something that we really need to identify and break apart because no one is effortlessly perfect. It’s kind of a false façade that students try to put forward in trying to tackle too many things and pretend like everything’s okay when everything might not be okay. One small thing is just trying to expand conversations beyond, “Hey how’s it going? Great—see you later.” We have those types of small talk conversations probably 10 times a day, but it doesn’t mean anything; there’s no real connection. I’d really encourage students to think about how they can ask, “I know you had a midterm the other day. How did that go?” or “How was your Thanksgiving break? Oh, where’s home for you?” and actually dive into a conversation a little bit more. Form more of a personal connection and let the other person know that you care and you remember personal details about their own lives and that you’re listening. I think that’s something that’s missing from our conversations a lot of the time. On a more institutional level, I think Duke students should try to support their friends in accessing the resources we have on campus, whether it’s through CAPS, or the Women’s Center, or the Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity. It can be a hard step to walk through those doors alone, and so if you have a friend there to support you, it can make the journey so much easier. I’d also really encourage students to be there with friends and be not only emotional and mental but also physical support.
Maggie: I’ll wrap up with this one question that is important going into this winter break. What advice do you have for parents who want to talk with their Duke student about mental illness and health?
Gary: That’s a great question. First and foremost, the best thing that parents can say or do is say, “I am listening. I believe you. I want to help.” Because so often, when people think that mental illness or poor mental health is just a construct that you can just snap out of it or you can—just needs to work harder—that is incredibly unproductive to how we improve the well-being of our students, and it just further emphasizes this idea to students that we need to keep everything locked up because it’s not going to be accepted when we speak up. So, I think recognizing that mental illness is not a personal flaw; it’s something that everyone experiences. And it can be due to circumstances that we can’t individually control, and so for parents to be there as a shoulder to lean on and as someone to listen openly, I think is the most important first step. Secondly, I think parents becoming more aware of the resources at Duke will help connect students to resources if students are a little hesitant or nervous about making that connection. Overall, just checking in with their kids more trying to get into those meaningful conversations—students don’t want to talk, that’s ok—but the most important thing is letting your student know that you are there for them.
Maggie: Great, thank you. So, thank you so much for chatting with us today. Do you have any last thoughts you want to share?
Gary: I strongly suggest if students or parents are interested in getting involved to like our Facebook page, NAMI at Duke University, to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions. I just would love to see even more conversation among students and parents alike about mental health and mental illness, especially in the current national situation where mental health is coming to the forefront. I think it is a really exciting time and important time to be having those conversations. It’s something that we can be thinking about and doing something about each and every day.
Maggie: You have been listening to Maggie Peterson from the Office Parent and Family Programs at Duke University. This concludes our interview with the president of the National Alliance of Mental Illness here on campus at Duke. Tune in next month for another one of our podcasting series.