Brain Waves: Mental health is just health

I became overwhelmed; every task, no matter how small or large, appeared daunting. I would wake up in the morning with a massive pit in my stomach, already inundated by the challenge of conquering a new day.

I became overwhelmed; every task, no matter how small or large, appeared daunting. I would wake up in the morning with a massive pit in my stomach, already inundated by the challenge of conquering a new day.

Avi Asher, Contributing Columnist

I have been involved with the pediatric cancer community since I was two years old, and not by choice. Due to my experience with the illness, I have an easier time understanding the inner thoughts and emotions of cancer patients. The mental after-effects of cancer are not all negative; my experiences have strengthened my appreciation of time and the people I am surrounded by. But cancer and mental health issues walk hand-in-hand. Dealing with the stigma of mental health on top of an often terminal illness can be the most difficult thing in some peoples’ lives.

Patients and families often go through parts or all of the stages of grief defined by the Kubler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Whenever I speak to a cancer patient, the conversation usually makes its way towards having a positive outlook on life. The stigma of having cancer, and the physical consequences of treatment transform cancer into much more than a disease. Patients and families are likely to rely on friends and others rather than mental health professionals, as the additional stigma of receiving mental health therapy can be overwhelming.

Society agrees that cancer is a serious illness, yet there are parents in the pediatric cancer community who elect for their child not to receive medical help. These parents leave their child’s future in the hands of God and faith. Taking this action is irrational and counterintuitive. This course of action, or lack thereof, is parallel to not pursuing mental health. While people remain limited in their ability to control physical health, mental health is much more manageable.

Through a pediatric cancer research foundation that I am involved in, I met a friend two years ago who was diagnosed with cancer. As a fairly popular high school athlete, he had difficulty grasping how much his life would change. Chemotherapy forced him into baldness, radiation prohibited him from socializing with friends, his skin became ghostly pale and within months his body resembled a twig. I cannot sufficiently express the depth and intensity of his depression. His life had taken an extreme turn, so he turned to mental health care. Now, in 2015, he is alive and well, working his way through college. Mental health care saved my friend just as chemotherapy and radiation did.

My friend takes comfort in the fact that the stigma surrounding mental health continues to fade. Approximately 25 percent of college students have received mental health counseling. Nearly 25 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 to 24 have a diagnosable mental illness. Additionally, 30 percent of college students have felt depressed. And my friend does not feel unaccompanied in his mental health experience.

Recognize that mental health is not so different from cancer: both are illnesses that affect the lives of friends and family, each outside of the individual patient. The difference, however, is that an individual does not have complete jurisdiction over cancer’s outcome. You do have the ability to manage and control your mental health. Tulane’s student body needs to join forces and encourage the acceptance of mental health therapy so that individuals needing assistance can find help without the burden of social stigma. No longer should mental illness wound so many individuals and families. Advocate for yourself. Advocate for others. Advocate acceptance.