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ISU student works to eliminate mental health stigma on campus

Ames Tribune - 10/29/2017

Oct. 29--When Leah Beman was a senior in high school, she realized something was wrong. The Cedar Rapids native had always been a self-described anxious person, she knew that growing up. But that time around, something was different. Within her first few days of her senior year she was nauseous and lightheaded. She thought she had the flu, until she eventually had a panic attack, and knew something deeper was at play.

It took internet searching her symptoms, speaking with her mom, seeing a doctor to rule out stomach problems and visiting a psychiatrist before Beman, now a junior studying elementary education with an endorsement in special education and reading at Iowa State University, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic attack disorder and later on, agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder that causes those that have it to fear and avoid places or situations that might cause panic or feeling trapped and helpless.

"When I was going through that, I had a lot of friends and family support, but I realized how stigmatized the issue (of mental health) was," Beman said. "People didn't know how to help me. People didn't think it was any kind of problem. So coming into college, I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure people don't feel alone, and help anyone out that I could."

Since receiving her diagnoses, Beman's mental health journey has led her down a path to not only try to raise awareness of mental health issues around campus, but also to attempt to remove the "taboo" surrounding mental health for others, through her new role as president of ISU's student-run chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on Campus.

NAMI is a grassroots mental health organization, and the organization's ISU student chapter was founded in 2016 with a mission of ending the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, educating the campus community, promoting services and supports and advocating for mental health issues. The group meets the second Tuesday of every month, hosts speakers and offers informative presentations to dorms and Greek life organizations, during which members share personal stories of their mental health experiences.

Beman joined ISU's NAMI on Campus shortly after the group was formed, first held an executive position as vice president and took over as president this semester.

"Joining NAMI, I really wanted to just end the stigma, and educate people on what to say to people who have mental health issues," Beman said. "I can see people get uncomfortable if I bring it up. I don't want that to be a thing, I don't want people to have to feel uncomfortable and like they can't get help. The more we work to educate campus, the less taboo it will be. People won't have to feel like they can't talk about it."

This semester, Beman felt is was time to take another step forward with several initiatives: sponsoring the 2017 Story County Mental Health Expo, participating in the ISU homecoming parade and being part of NAMIWalks Iowa, a 5K event that raises awareness and funds for NAMI organizations across the country, for the first time.

Caela Price, a senior double major in psychology and criminal justice -- and NAMI treasurer -- said that Beman's efforts have helped the organization gain members and push for mental health issues to not be tucked away.

"[Beman] has tried very hard to make sure that the [group] flourishes as far as membership and events, there's always something we're working on," Price said."We have seen a record for the amount of people that we've had in our club this year at meetings. She's just kept it alive, and not just that, but growing. That's a really good feeling, because it can be pretty hard to get people on board with mental health sometimes, because it's kind of a heavy topic."

Beman's main initiative since becoming president, called The Bandana Project, kicked off on campus about three weeks ago. The project originated at the University of Wisconsin, and is designed to spread awareness of resources for those with mental illnesses. As part of it, lime green bandanas are handed out on campus for students to attach to their backpacks. If an individual wears one, it means they are a safe person to approach with mental health-related issues, they stand with those who have a mental illness and that they hold resource cards with information about outlets to get help and support in times of crisis.

Beman said that ISU is the first Iowa school to bring the project to its campus.

Since the project came to the university, Beman said that NAMI on Campus members, working in tandem with the ISU Police Department, handed out hundreds of resource cards and bandanas. Officers came out to support the effort, hand out cards and even brought out a police car to help attract attention, and Beman attributed the successful turnout to the department's help.

"I've been really impressed with her determination and her incredible motivation," ISU Police Department Deputy Chief Carrie Jacobs said of Beman's work through ISU's NAMI on campus. "And the fact that she's welcomed us into her organization as well, that is very humbling that she would ask us to join in. As police officers, we are going to engage with people with mental health issues on a daily basis. And to be able to partner with an organization that helps us with the job, that's just priceless."

Jacobs said another Bandana Project launch through ISU's NAMI on Campus is in the works for the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine, as the school is on the outskirts of the rest of campus and was not actively involved in the first one.

ISU Police Chief Michael Newton, who was previously the president of NAMI Wisconsin, now sits on the NAMI Iowa board of directors and is also the advisor for ISU's NAMI on Campus chapter. He said that the police department's work with The Bandana Project at ISU is just one piece of the mental health puzzle. At the beginning of October, the department joined the International Association of Chiefs of Police's One Mind Campaign, which works to ensure successful interactions between police officers and those with mental illness. To join the campaign, the department committed to implementing four promising strategies, one of which includes establishing a partnership with community mental health organizations. The department's work with NAMI on Campus is one of them.

"NAMI on Campus is one way to get involved and support your fellow Cyclones," Newton said. "I really appreciate the passion that [Beman's] brought to this. Students like her are what keep us going and keep us super involved in what's happening on campus. She also has lived experience, so she's able to bring that to the table."

Although ISU's NAMI on Campus chapter has grown since it was first established, Beman said the work the organization wants to accomplish is not over. She hopes that the organization can continue to blossom alongside growing mental health resources on campus, including recently added new counselors and mental health training for the police department.

"There's more specific organizations for mental health groups, but there's nothing in general, so people were really happy when we came on to campus," Beman said. "It's a really good reaction overall. It's definitely growing, and growing in the right direction."

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(c)2017 the Ames Tribune, Iowa

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