The pain behind the laughter

The recent news that Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams committed suicide once again brings the topic of mental health to the forefront of our collective conversations.

As President Obama said in his public statement, “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between.”  Williams was also a victim of depression—a disease that can be as deadly as cancer and one he expertly hid from the world behind his comic genius and memorable characters.

With the start of a new semester just around the corner, Williams’ death can serve as a cautionary tale for anyone working in higher education. Let’s remember new and returning students may view the pressures they face in the University environment as fierce. Some students may already suffer from depression, and others may succumb to anxiety, stress, and substance abuse over the course of a challenging semester. In order to help students realize their dreams, we must first ensure they stay physically and emotionally healthy.

Earlier this year I attended a mental health and wellness event called A Town Hall Without Walls on Pace’s New York City Campus. The event highlighted our nationally accredited Counseling Center’s great work helping students address depression and other issues that can lead to suicide.

The event’s speakers emphasized that depression is treatable, but only if the person seeks treatment. We can all contribute to suicide prevention by keeping an eye out for students who are chronically depressed, never happy, and consumed by helplessness. Helping these young men and women get the counseling they need from trained professionals, like those in the Pace Counseling Center, is part of our sacred trust to look out for the welfare of our students.

Staying healthy applies to mental health too

We talk a lot about what’s important—the value of good classroom experiences combined with opportunities for experiential learning, and setting goals and working towards them—but nothing is more important than our health and the sanctity of human life.

That’s why our recent event Mental Health and Wellness on Campus: A Town Hall Without Walls, was so important. The Jed Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, and Facebook hosted the event.

When students are anxious or depressed, their academic performance suffers, but more important, so do their lives. One out of every four young adults experiences an episode of depression before the age of 24, and nearly one-third of college students report an episode of feeling so sad or depressed in the past year that they have trouble functioning.

I was happy that Pace students practically filled the Schimmel Theatre to hear our panelists discuss these topics. We also reached another 13 million people through Twitter, and the Clinton Foundation continues to make a video of the event available to its website visitors.

Richard Shadick, PhD, director of the Pace University Counseling Center and adjunct professor of psychology, was part of the panel that discussed the prevalence, challenges, stereotypes, and dangers of prescription drug misuse, self-harm, and suicide on campus. The three most important messages Dr. Shadick and the others delivered to students were: 1) you are not the only person who gets stressed out or depressed; 2) you are not the only person who needs help to feel better; and 3) there is no stigma attached to getting help.

Dr. Shadick and his team in the Counseling Center are doing great work. The Center is nationally accredited and has received close to a half-million dollars in grants to prevent suicide and substance abuse. The Jed Foundation has also recognized our Counseling Center, awarding Pace its Jed Campus Seal of Approval. The Foundation gives the award to colleges that demonstrate strong, comprehensive solutions to students’ mental health needs.

Counseling works, but only when people use it. No one should be embarrassed or ashamed to take that first step towards mental and emotional health.