Anyone walking into Warren Towers, Sleeper Hall or the Fitness and Recreation Center is sure to notice boards plastered with postcards containing students’ anonymous confessions. Some are hastily scribbled on, others are elaborately drawn and the secrets range from ashamed admissions, such as “I listen to Justin Bieber,” to reflective revelations, such as “I feel like I’ve fallen into a black hole and I can’t seem to get out.”
The Boston University branch of the mental health awareness organization Active Minds launched the PostSecret initiative on Feb. 28 by sending blank postcards to students and putting up collection booths across campus. Since March 24, student secrets have been on display on various campus locations.
According to co-president of Active Minds Rojina Shrestha, the goal of the project was to bring BU students closer together.
“It’s just really hard to get close at BU,” said Shrestha. “It’s such a huge community. This just helps to make it tighter.”
The postcards were reviewed by members of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation and BU students before being posted.
“We tried not to leave any out. Maybe only one card didn’t make it out of about 300,” said Active Minds secretary and College of Communication senior Zuzanna Sitek. “I think it is a thoughtful initiative,” said School of Management junior Juliette Delgado. “It allows those who are confident enough to create a card to get out something that may be eating away at them without sacrificing the outward image they’re attempting to maintain.”
College of General Studies freshman Mike Tom also thinks the postcards are a good way for students to connect on a different level.
“It simply helps everyone realize that everyone is harboring some sort of secret or hidden thought,” he said.
For Tom, mental health issues hit close to home.
“My dad has been battling chronic depression for the past decade and takes medication daily. Some days he feels better than others, the worst days are those where he can’t get out of bed,” he said. “This is why I think this project is so good. I really hope it can help others who are in the same situation out by raising awareness.”
The BU PostSecret boards were not short of anonymous cries for help.
“A number of them were about depressed and lonely people on campus. There have been one or two serious ones where people reveal secrets about themselves,” Sitek said.
WHAT THE SECRETS REALLY SAY
While the glimpse into students’ minds is telling, what is equally striking about the boards are the facts and figures depicted next to the postcards: out of 18,537 undergrads, 1,112 have seriously considered committing suicide and 6,353 screen positive for anxiety or depression.
While it might appear shocking, this number is not new. A study released by University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute at the beginning of the 2010-11 academic year found that college freshmen are reporting the lowest levels of emotional health in 25 years.
“College students often put up a front to portray themselves as fun and happy, whether or not that is how they really feel,” said School of Hospitality freshman Becca Golden. “It is hard to know how prevalent it is because people are not always completely open about it.”
“Students often find themselves within a transitional period between childhood and adulthood, dependence and independence, which is why they are more prone to depression and other mental health issues,” said Anna Clarke, a member of the national branch of Active Minds.
A GLIMPSE INTO ACTIVE MINDS
Active Minds is a national organization that works using student voices to raise awareness around mental health disorders – including depression, anxiety, trauma and eating disorders – by spreading information about the on-campus resources available to those seeking help. As of now, they have developed 325 student-run chapters on college campuses around the United States.
One of the primary goals of Active Minds is to battle the stigma attached to mental health issues.
“By ‘stigma’ we mean negative attitudes and beliefs that are associated with people suffering from a mental illness,” Clarke said. “It comes mainly from a lack of information, which is exactly what we are trying to address by setting up chapters on college campuses.”
Student opinion varies on whether such a stigma exists.
“I think that when people hear that someone has a mental illness they automatically label that person as ‘nuts’ or ‘crazy’ instead of trying to provide that person with help. People stay away as if that person’s mental illness is contagious,” Delgado said.
“I think there’s a stigma, especially for new college students who want to come across as being well-adjusted and happy,” said Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences freshman Kati Moran. “No one wants to appear weak, especially if others around them are always in a good mood and have adjusted well to college, so they may feel obligated to hide their true feelings.”
In addition to creating the campus PostSecret initiative, Active Minds set up guest speaker events, organized National Stress Out Day prior to exams to promote stress management and National Day Without Stigma to raise awareness about mental health issues.
Clarke stressed, however, that Active Minds does not aim to offer peer support.
“We encourage students with serious problems to seek out professionals,” she said. “Our main goal is to make sure students feel they can talk about these mental health issues, start an active dialogue and inform people about the options that are available.”
HOW BU CAN HELP – OR NOT
But some BU students say they still feel uncertain about the resources and services available to them on campus and are unsure what they would do in a crisis.
“I’m not really sure what BU has to offer. I imagine that they have psychologists in Student Health Services,” Delgado said. “If I personally could tell that I was experiencing some sort of mental problems I would hope that I would seek help or that a friend would help me but one never really knows unless they’re actually in that kind of situation.”
Other students, however, said they are more aware of the help BU can offer.
“I would feel comfortable calling SHS for a friend who has been having problems as long as they were willing to seek treatment,” Moran said.
BU Student Health Services includes a Behavioral Medicine department, which can help in addressing short-term psychological issues. For urgent mental health related needs, students can call 617-353-3569.