Educators, students and mental health professionals from around the country filled the Plaster Student Center at Missouri State University Wednesday for the 2019 Impact Summit focusing on student mental health issues.
The day-long conference focused on all aspects of student mental health from treatment options to fighting the stigma of mental illness in the campus community and their surrounding communities at large.
“It started about two years ago as the result of a conversation,” Missouri State Dean of Students Dr. Thomas Lane told OI. “I’d started to notice a number of students coming to campus with mental health concerns. So I had a conversation with Debora Biggs at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Southwest, our counseling center director Rhonda Leslie and the graduate student in our office at the time. We talked about how we could expand the conversation about mental health issues, especially with the student population.”
Topics in the breakout sessions for the conference included “What Parents Need to Know about Athletes and Mental Health”, “It’s Real: An Examination of College Student Mental Health”, “Emotional Support Animals at Drury University”, and a student panel talking about their experiences with mental health issues.
The conference’s closing keynote came from actor Sean Astin, who began his advocacy for mental health awareness as a child due to his mother Patty Duke’s struggles with bipolar disorder. Once Duke was diagnosed with her condition, she became a passionate advocate for mental illness treatment and awareness, and that passion was passed down to her son.
“It’s about continuing her legacy,” Astin said. “I just feel comfortable talking about this topic…even though I’m not a professional. Hopefully I can contribute to helping our communities become more sensitive to the treatment of mental health issues.”
Astin told OI that events like MSU’s conference are some of the best ways to advance the conversation about mental illness.
“The function of these institutions is to develop the minds of students as they get older,” Astin said. “It’s not downstream, it’s the head of the stream! In my experience, students are the most open minded people. Because mental health treatment is advancing at light-speed, it’s important for the community’s understanding of them to keep pace.”
The conference featured local speakers such as noted Springfield photographer Randy Bacon, founder of 7 Billion Ones, an organization that strives to inspire others to find good through telling the stories of individuals. One of the programs 7 Billion Ones has done is called “It Knows No Face” and focuses on survivors left behind when a loved one commits suicide.
In his presentation, Bacon shared his own story of struggle following the breakup of his marriage that lead him to have thoughts of suicide and how his perspective changed when he received a call about a friend’s son committing suicide. He talked about how his work telling the stories of those who overcame great trials yet found “something sweet” in the midst of the journey changed him.
“If we can help people weather the storm that they’re facing in life,” Bacon said, “they can find on the other side that life can be sweet.”