Interview: Student Aaron Stephens Pushes for Better Mental Health Services at Michigan State University.

Kindness makes us human. Those who have a hard time facing discrimination, racism, and low living standards and manage to help all groups of people, regardless of race deserve to be praised, just like our today's guest. BLM supporter, "Students for Sanders" member and MSU student activist Aaron Stephens who started the Coalition for Higher Mental Health Standards at his University shares his views on the mental health and suicide issues among students especially among minority students and gives the message to everyone who is ready to enact change.
Hello, Aaron! We are grateful to have you sharing your thoughts with us today. Could you tell us more about the Coalition for Higher Mental Health Standards? What gave rise to it? What problems is it supposed to solve?
The coalition started with one very public case that happened about two weeks ago here on our campus. Patrick Kegan Cochrane committed suicide and he put it out towards the public in a very explicit and exquisite way. I didn’t know him on a familiar basis. But I saw things that he published and watched the videos he put online before his unfortunate death. This stuff was really dark and it got me thinking that suicidal thoughts are not something to put on the shoulders of one person. This is something that affects a lot of people. This particular case was put in a public view but this happens every single day. Any type of person goes through some sort of depression and has this kind of thought process. Given this tragedy, I decided to make a research to help my fellow students cope with this kind of stress. I had a talk with a member of a student government and was shocked to find out that we haven’t had a director of the MSU’s Counseling Center for the past two years; that MSU has the worst student-to-counselor ratio in the B1G; that it takes three weeks to make an appointment to the counseling services. Some students had to drive home 8 hours or longer just to get psychiatric help because there are no psychology and psychiatric departments under the same roof. I got angry and I made a facebook post and started a petition for higher mental health standards. I ended up getting an extreme support and interest in it. Over the past two weeks, we’ve had over 1,500 signatures under the petition.
Your active involvement in the life of the university and readiness to help your fellow students are really impressive! Being an expert at the theme, could you give us some info about the suicides? What are the causes? Who is the typical victim of such type of thinking?
It’s a complicated issue. It is the issue that is not necessarily just a suicide itself. Suicide is a product of a very bad mentality. It is the result of mental health problems. At the same time, there are so many causes of the suicide. The reason why I am fighting for this kind of access to mental health resources is that every single stroke of depression starts from one thought and that thought goes ahead as a snowball. No one should have to wait for three weeks to get the first appointment to the counseling center because if a person have that one thought and then he has the opportunity to talk to a third party, to somebody who can help, that one thought can be extinguished. But if a person doesn’t have those resources that one thought builds up and leads to something a lot worse. As for the typical victim, it is the main problem of the suicide issue. Everyone can have that kind of thoughts. It doesn’t affect just one group of people it affects everybody regardless of the age, gender, identity, etc. However, people with a higher level of income have the ability to get better resources in every regard including the mental health issue.
That’s sad! And it leads us to the next question. According to the recent study by Jeffrey Bridge, the rate of suicide among black children has risen to 2.54 from 1.36 per one million children since the early 1990s. At the same time, the rate for white children fell to 0.77 per million from 1.14. How do you think what is the reason for such dramatic change?
As a minority myself, I can’t help but notice a lot of different situations that minorities endure and white people do not necessarily have. A little while ago, I was part of a BLM march and got criticized for it. I was asked why we said Black lives matter. Well, let me explain. We are not saying that Black lives matter more than any other lives. What we are saying is that right now in our society you can see the effects of minorities being disparaged a lot more than our Caucasian counterparts. All the media outlets and any kind of data on Black people proof the fact that we are incarcerated much more than White people. Black people are targeted for misdemeanor crimes. It’s absurd that you have a significantly smaller chance of going to jail for marijuana possession if you are white. The funny thing is that the usage of drugs is the exact same. This type of incarceration affects every issue including mental health. There is a lot more discrimination, there is a lot more disparity, there are a lot fewer resources given to minorities. That’s why we see these heightened numbers. I truly believe that mental health should be accessible to all people. I am not asking much – there should be counselors available at every school and university throughout the day and in a hot line. Every person regardless of the race should have the opportunity to go talk to somebody. And they shouldn’t have to pay $200 an hour for a therapist help.
It really explains a lot. Aaron, we truly believe that our society needs more people like you. What are your plans for the future? And what would your message be to the people thinking of going the same road of activism?
Thank you! I don’t know if it is going to be near future or later in the future but I am planning to run for office and I will continue to fight this fight against established standards. My message will be not to give up. There were several times when I thought that all this was too hard. But the support and gratitude of people always kept me going. Anybody who is thinking of doing something and getting out there and trying to enact some sort of change shouldn’t strike it off as a silly idea! As a 19-year-old college student, I spoke in front of 13,000 people and introduced my idle Bernie Sanders at a rally that I set up. That’s not because I am special in any way. Regardless of how you think our political system is broke, regardless of how you think the country is divided, once you get out there and do something about that, I promise you, that you will have the support behind you and you will be able to enact change!
Thank you!
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