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'Silver Week' Reflects Focus on Mental Health Issues in BC Asian Community

02/28/13
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The #BeAFriend social media campaign was launched at a Silver Week event. (Photo courtesy of Asian Caucus of Boston College)

By Melissa Beecher | Chronicle Staff

Published: Feb. 28, 2013

Shining a light on mental health issues among the Asian American community is a burgeoning movement at Boston College, one that organizers say aims to spark a national dialogue among college students and their families.

Last week, the University observed “Silver Week,” five days of activities to raise the issue of mental health among Asian American groups on campus (silver is the national color for mental health). Members of the Asian Caucus of Boston College collaborated with University Counseling Services, the Office of Health Promotion and the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association to “break the silence” and fight a stigma many students say is deeply cultural.

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Asian Caucus of Boston College Co-President Matthew Alonsozana ’14 explained that student leaders felt called to action after discussions among one another put the problem in perspective.

“AC presidents of the different cultural organizations came together and asked ourselves, ‘What does our community really need?’ We could have dealt with issues on Asian American identity or immigration, but the one issue that affected us most intimately and most widespread was mental health awareness,” said Alonsozana.

“When we went around the room and asked, ‘Did you ever have a mental health issue or have a friend who has had a mental health issue?’ Everyone raised a hand.”

That powerful moment was something that University Counseling Services had become aware of and, simultaneously, been working to better address. UCS Staff Psychologist Aarti Khullar said over the past year, her office has started a pilot project to improve accessibility to all students who need help. Throughout the semester UCS will be holding a walk-in group every Friday in Gasson 001 from 3 to 4 p.m., so students can ask questions about therapy, counseling or general concerns regarding mental health on campus.

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“Asian American and international student populations are not accessing our services to the same level as other students on campus. The goal is to address the disparity that exists,” said Khullar.

“We are focused and working on addressing these needs. This session will allow us to understand individual needs and the needs of the campus community. Our goal is to begin to have the dialogue.”

Silver Week included forums on managing stress, diet and exercise, established the #BeAFriend social media campaign and provided two discussion forums at which UCS staff and AC presidents shared resources and personal struggles about mental health. The culmination of the week was the “Opening the Cabinet: Real Talk on Mental Health” event, where presidents of various culture groups talked openly about their challenges.

Chinese Students Association Co-President Josh Li ’13 said “Opening the Cabinet” was a call to action.

“There is such a stigma on mental health, especially in the Asian community, we figured if we put our stories out there, other students would be more inspired to reach out to us or use the services on campus,” said Li.

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“We went into this event as the presidents of our respective clubs — all with our own membership base. We all feel as if we are put on some kind of pedestal – some people may look up to us as role models. It was interesting because people shared something that was personal to each one of us, but collectively we were feeling the same things. Maybe it helped to kind of take us off those pedestals,” said Li.

“There were a lot of tears. I cried,” said AC co-president Jeena Hah. “One graduate student came up after the event and said it felt so powerful to talk about it. This showed me that you feel like you are so isolated in whatever you are going through, so much that you don’t want to associate it with the label of mental health. You think it’s personal and you should keep it to yourself. But then, to see that everyone you know in the community is going through the same thing – I feel like the understanding really branches out and supports everyone.”

Alonsozana explained that the groundswell of support from students and BC departments has been why Silver Week will be a springboard for greater mental health access for Asian American students at the University – and beyond. Alonsozana said the idea has been suggested for the White House mental health initiative.

“In my time here at BC I have never seen a collaboration at so many different levels. Horizontally, you look across this room and we are all different ethnicities and different cultures. Vertically, all of the departments that have been involved here at BC and now, it has been gaining talk regional circles and our idea is taken to the White House initiative on mental health. BC, our community, our friends have really been at the forefront,” said Alonsozana.

For more information about mental health services available to students, see http://www.bc.edu/counseling