Approximately 100 people gathered on the Chapel steps to raise awareness about mental health Thursday evening.
The event coincided with World Suicide Prevention Day and paid tribute to Cliff Brandt, Trinity ‘76, who took his own life in August, explained sophomore Khalouk Shahbander. Shahbander, the gathering’s lead organizer, is working to start a Duke chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and create support groups for students suffering from mental illnesses.
“We’re here to support each other and show that as a Duke community, we’re willing to make the change to help the people that need it the most,” he said.
In a recent post on the All Duke Facebook page, Shahbander shared his own battles with mental illness and encouraged others to do the same. He said he felt a sense of urgency for students to come together to talk about this issue.
“It’s been needed for a long time,” he said.
In a short, informal speech, Shahbander addressed the issues of silence that often surround mental illness, and reminded students that they are not alone, handing out slips of paper containing personal accounts of mental illness that students sent him.
“What better resource, what better therapy do you have than your peers and a community behind you?” Shahbander said.
For many, the event hit close to home. Freshman Emilia Chojkiewicz explained that she felt it was important to spread awareness about mental illness after losing three people in her life to suicide.
Others had experienced mental illness on an even more personal level. Freshman Maegen Burns said that after struggling with some of her own mental health issues, she wanted to come let others know that she was there for support.
Juniors Ryan Bowman and Arturo Reyes attended the event to honor the memory of Brandt, who was a member of their fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. Both Bowman and Reyes expressed frustration with how mental health is handled on campus.
Reyes said that admitting to a struggle with mental illness is often not perceived to be socially acceptable. Bowman added that Duke’s Counseling and Psychological Services could be improved.
“They can only give [students] x amount of treatment for a certain period of time, and then they’re obligated by the policies to let them go,” he said. “You can’t treat a mental illness in three weeks.”
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Shahbander explained that he hoped to expand the resources available for students, beyond the systems already in place.
Although the average wait times for CAPS dropped from nine days to four days last year, Gary Glass, CAPS associate director for outreach and developmental programming, noted this summer that CAPS is hoping to decrease wait times further this year. Duke’s first mental health month occurred in February and Duke Student Government and the student group Peer for You have increased their outreach efforts, but students and faculty generally agree that more can still be done to properly support those with mental health issues.
Junior Pooja Mehta, who helped organize the event, said she thinks that students can make a big difference on campus by providing support to their peers.
”Everyone who’s here is here for the same reason. Look around, look at familiar faces and look at unfamiliar faces and realize that this is a network of people you can rely on,” Mehta told the crowd.
Shahbander said he looks forward to working with NAMI in the future to provide a support system for students and change the way students and faculty view mental health.
“This is the beginning of something special and extraordinary for the campus,” he said.
Correction: This article was updated to correct erroneous spelling and to update the number of people at the event. The Chronicle regrets the error.