May 26, 2021

Crucial Conversations: Mental Health Awareness

A University of Michigan Public Engagement live panel discussion on mental health awareness


Millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness, and there are many facets of mental health that impact numerous aspects of life. During Mental Health Awareness Month and beyond, it’s important to talk about prioritizing mental health, educating and advocating for resources and policies, and creating an uplifting environment for everyone. University of Michigan faculty, students, and community members brought those topics to the forefront during an engaging virtual live panel on Monday, May 24. 

Moderator Preeti Malani, MD, U-M Chief Health Officer, started by explaining why this conversation is crucial, especially amid a pandemic that has increased stress, anxiety, and depression. 

“As we look ahead to what life might look like in the next phase of the pandemic, we thought this was a good time to talk about ways all of us can improve our own well-being and support those around us,” Malani said. 

The panelists discussed ways to reduce the stigma of conversations around mental health and normalizing dialogues about symptoms as part of the human experience. With more conversations about mental health taking place, they expressed hope that this change has already begun. 

“One of the positive things that has come out of the past year and a half — the pandemic, racial injustice, economic upheaval — is it’s given us the opportunity to talk about health and the social determinants of health and mental health problems because it’s impacted all of us to some degree. Nobody has gotten out of this, really. It gives us a way to think about resilience, prevention, coping, and how to do better in the future,” said Michelle Riba, Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and a member of the Eisenberg Family Depression Center.

It’s important to discuss how common mental illness is in the US, said School of Public Health graduate student Caitlan DeVries:  the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) estimates that as many as one in five Americans live with mental illness. 

“This is an incredibly common [occurrence]. However, living with any mental health condition or just experiencing some of these symptoms can be really alienating. I think in academia, it can be really hard to talk about what’s going on and you don’t want to feel like you’re the odd one out. But I think it’s really important to reduce stigma, talk about it, and do things like we’re doing today,” DeVries said. 

Ramaswami Mahalingam, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Mindful Dignity Lab, added that institutions need to commit to the idea of being open to helping students and changing institutional culture. He also shared insights about mindfulness and its role in mental health, especially for students who are dealing with academic stress, identity-based stress, and misconstrued academic expectations. 

“Mindfulness helps you to really see the transient nature of things. Things are changing all the time. [Mindfulness] helps you with self-compassion and compassion toward others. It helps to connect us to our communities,” Mahalingam said.

John Piette, Professor in Health Behavior and Health Education and Director of the Center for Managing Chronic Disease, discussed mental health as a public health concern and said that one of the fundamental symptoms of mood disorders is feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, or trapped. He continued to explain that there are evidence-based approaches that work to address it — including mindfulness. 

“If you’re struggling with a mood disorder, if you are depressed, or if you’re anxious, have an open mind and try some of it out,” Piette said, adding that there are other preventive measures that individuals can take to improve their mental health as well.

“Sleep is one of the basic things that helps mood disorders. Be serious about your sleep schedule. Additionally, physical activity, studies have shown, can have as much of an impact on depression as an antidepressant medication.” 

The panelists also discussed managing grief and loss, as well as how to handle the adjustment of going back to in-person gatherings as COVID-19 safety guidelines change to allow more groups to meet. In order to change the narrative, they said it’s important to continue communicating with those around us and advocating for mental health resources, and to practice mindfulness for ourselves and our communities.