Student challenges mental health stigma College can be tough time for those with disorders

By Hannah Panten

“I’m bipolar,” Chico State freshman Alexa Thornblad says casually, sipping her white mocha. Thornblad uses the tattooed back of her arm to wipe milk froth from her lip. Giggling, she holds up a No. 1 with her tiny index finger, then explains: “Bipolar 1 Disorder.” Tugging on her four-sizes-too-large corduroy pants, she sits in the corner of Naked Lounge — an eccentric cafe she frequents sometimes when she feels no drive to go to class.

Alexa Thornblad

photo by Hannah Panten

Studying at the coffee shop

Thornblad, an 18-year-old Los Angeles native, is majoring in sociology and liberal studies. Contrary to popular practice, she has no issue speaking up about her recently diagnosed mental disorders. Her first glimpse of depression came in 10th grade, soon after realizing she’s bisexual, but it wasn’t until last winter that she got diagnosed with Bipolar 1 and Borderline Personality Disorder. Thornblad attributes her late diagnosis to her parents not believing in mental disorders. She also believes that her parents’ lack of concern about mental health is not unusual.

“People don’t know how to deal with it, because they don’t feel it,” she explains. “It’s just like racism or homophobia. People are scared.”

In a society in which most automatically answer “good” to the obligatory question, “How are you?” mental health often seems a taboo subject. The green ribbons of Mental Health Awareness Month in May help bring some attention to the problem, but Thornblad thinks college is an especially overwhelming setting for someone struggling with mental health issues. As young adults begin to learn what they want to study and how to live on their own, many also battle some form of mental disorder.  

Juni Banerjee-Stevens, clinical director at the Chico State Counseling and Wellness Center, says the most common mental illness in students is anxiety, followed by depression. Although academics play a big role in mental health, Banerjee-Stevens says mental health issues generally arise due to many stressful factors at once.  

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in every four college students lives with a diagnosed mental disorder. Still, many struggling individuals feel alone, partly because they are conditioned to not talk about it. When discussing how common mental illness is among students, Thornblad said, “I wouldn’t know, because we don’t talk about it. Like it’s not normalized at all.”  

With all the demands and growth that college life brings, being able to talk to other students could help immensely. Of course, resources like counseling exist, but getting professional help can do little to lessen the ostracism felt by those who struggle. On top of feeling unable to talk with peers, many students don’t seek professional help for a number of reasons.

“The stigma surrounding mental illness is a major barrier for most people when it comes to getting help,” Banerjee-Stevens said. “We live in a culture that rewards and admires people who do a lot and push themselves very hard. People who go to college tend to be high-achieving people who have big goals.”

“A 40-hour crisis training is ‘not cost or information effective,’ O’Brien said.”

A main source of stress for Thornblad are the expectations from others. She feels pressure from her parents, professors and others in authority to fit a certain role.  She went on to share a time when she was contemplating self-harm and her friend called University Police. Upon the officers’ arrival, Thornblad was pulled out of her room and pat down to make sure she had nothing that could hurt the officers.  

During an unrelated roommate dispute a few weeks later, one of the same officers showed up. Right away, the officer brought up Thornblad’s recent suicidal thoughts and an even more irrelevant time when he saw her on campus, kissing her girlfriend. Thornblad quickly felt she’d made a mistake in requesting the cops’ help.

University Police Detective Bill Kolb said the department has a protocol for dealing with mental health cases. “Many of us are trained in Crisis Intervention Training,” Kolb said.

In a recent ChicoSol story, Butte County sheriff’s Capt. Andy Duch revealed that only the sheriff’s office and the Paradise Police Department have consistently supported Butte County’s Crisis Intervention Team (a 40-hour training) by sending respectable numbers of dispatchers and officers to the yearly academy.

 “I have been to that training,” Kolb said. “It’s really kind of a one-time thing.”  

Chico’s Police Community Advisory Board hosted a community meeting about mental illness May 17 – two months to the day after Chico police shot to death Desmond Phillips, a 25-year-old mentally ill black man. At that meeting, several police initiatives were discussed, including a new partnership with Butte County Behavioral Health that provides Chico PD’s so-called Target Team with a half-time mental health worker.

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien said that, by fall, all police personnel will have received eight hours of crisis intervention training from an outside expert. A 40-hour course, such as Butte County’s CIT academy, is “not cost or information effective,” O’Brien told ChicoSol.

photo by Hannah PantenAlexa Thornblad

photo by Hannah Panten

Alexa Thornblad

As for Thornblad, the Chico State student, the invalidation she feels is the scariest thing.  To fight this fear and stigmatization, she says people need to start welcoming conversations about mental health.  That many are unsure about how to react to such conversations, Thornblad says simply, “It’s OK. Let them talk first and go from there. Ask questions, because not everyone is the same.  Just make it apparent you’re there. It’s having a conversation. It’s being human.”  

Hannah Panten, who is from La Crescent, Minn., is a sophomore journalism major at Chico State. She originally wrote this story for Dave Waddell’s “Writing for the Mass Media” class.  

1 thought on “Student challenges mental health stigma College can be tough time for those with disorders

  1. Hannah Panten, great article, very useful, especially for parents that are blinded. We are in the field of mental health illness for teenagers, helping teens and families cope with it.
    Well done Hannah. Thank you very much, keep up the good work.

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