Defining 'herd immunity' against anxiety and depression

On Wednesday, April 4, 2018 at the Arts Club of Washington, docu-mental will host a panel of deans from Georgetown Law, GWU School of Medicine, Washington College of Law, and American University, as well as mental health experts and a special keynote speaker who applies the power of comedy and entertainment to affect social change. The focus of our discussion will be:

-What are the root causes of anxiety & depression in students?

-Are we "over-pathologizing" what is normative? If so, why are suicide rates and binge drinking episodes on the rise?

-Which administrative policies interfere with campus wellness and resilience initiatives? What can be changed?

-How practical are the arts, and other novel approaches, to augment the effectiveness of counseling centers and other resources?

-What roles do hope, compassion, creativity, personal agency, and authority play in future success? How best to meet students' mental, emotional, & career fulfillment needs?

In advance of the event, here is a Q/A about docu-mental purpose and mission.

Q: What is docu-mental?

A: It is a play on the words "document" and "mental". I seek to explore and document how mental health extends beyond the clinical, and how we can utilize different aspects of mind and brain to help assign meaning and mattering to our lives. In a sense, it's a shield against the chaos of randomness.

Q: That sounds like a well-intentioned humanitarian goal, but what practical, day-to-day value is there to this?

A: I believe this can help create herd immunity against anxiety and depression.

Q: What do you mean by 'herd immunity'?

A: Herd immunity is an epidemiological term referring to what results when enough members of a population have developed resistance to contagion, such that the spread of infectious disease is limited.

Q: What does that have to do with mental illness?

A: In my work as a clinical reporter, I have seen parallels between mental illness and communicable disease. Beyond our individual inherent risks for pathology, are societal and interpersonal factors that can trigger mental illness; in fact, rates of anxiety and depression (and suicide) are rising across virtually all demographics.

I have observed that one risk factor for this is the cognitive dissonance that arises when what our experience tells us is true runs counter to what others tell us "should" be our truth.

When that message is delivered by those with direct influence over our lives, this tends to result in self-doubt, a loss of personal agency, and feeling as though one is tasked with a responsibility one hasn't the authority nor skills to carry out.

The likely result is a sense of personal failure. It is at this point that anxiety, depression, and/or demoralization set in. I believe these resultant pathologies of failure currently are infecting our nation as a whole, and in some subsets of the population, such as with young, elite professionals, these pathologies are acutely felt.

Q: So, what are your solutions?

A: Clinical approaches are important, but we can't counsel our way out. Yet, there is more to staying in balance than just having resilience. We also need critical thinking skills to help us see beyond the face value of what undergirds the policies that govern the various areas of our lives. We also need courage and insight to know when to accept -- and when to challenge -- those policies.

My goal is to facilitate conversation among those best positioned to find solutions to the "crazy" that happens when personal goals and policy aims are misaligned. It is my expectation that just framing the issues so they are clear, and admitting these disconnects exist can take us more than half the way to better mental health.

Q: Is this a new field of study?

A. Not really. Many in literature have explored this, but it is rarely discussed in leadership circles. My goal is to take an inter-disciplinary approach to mental well-being, incorporating all tools, not just those from the clinic, that are available to us: arts and literature, candid but still merciful conversations with people we trust, appreciation of beauty in nature -- these are just some examples.

Q: How will "docu-mental presents: CrossTalk, novel approaches to student anxiety, depression, suicide, and burnout" help graduate students?

A: We will examine how graduate students want to live their lives vs. what they perceive is expected of them as professionals. I look forward to this CrossTalk between our distinguished deans and others in an event I believe will "strengthen the herd", and I invite others to join us!

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