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The Carletonian

Mental health class seeks to erase stigma

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-049cc8ea-8722-adac-5334-f402efca6c65">To an incoming first-year, Carleton might seem shielded, a bubble insulated from the ills of society, which disappear in a community of diverse, open-minded, intelligent students. While that might be true in some respects, Kristie Barton ‘16, the co-creator of Carleton’s zero-credit Open Minds Mental Health course, along with Allie Dulles ‘16, says that with regards to mental health, Carleton is not progressive, but rather quite behind.

“I think there’s a general lack of discussion surrounding mental health at Carleton, which is unfortunate because there are a lot of conversations about a lot of things here,” said Barton. “There is so much shame, stigma, and secrecy, and I think Carleton has absorbed that from society.”

While taking a FemSex (Female Sexuality) class in the spring of 2014, Barton had a revelation about how to address these issues on campus. She brought they idea to Dulles, and they agreed to work on creating a discussion-based class similar to femsex that would address problems of mental health on campus. After soliciting input from Student Health and Counseling (SHAC), the Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC), and therapists in Northfield, Barton and Dulles sought to get students talking about mental health on campus.

One of Barton and Dulles’ main goals for the course was to foster dialogue about mental health not just in the context of mental illness, but in terms of everyday mental wellness. “Mental health is a term that is often used to talk about mental illness, but in reality mental health is something everyone has, so we wanted to talk about that part of it,” said Barton. “We talk about topics such as self care, gratitude, and mindfulness. We try to make it human and get people to think about how that impacts their lives, because it does. It impacts everyone’s lives.”

Throughout their course, one of Barton and Dulles’ primary obstacles was making sure the course did not turn into group therapy. “We wanted to be very intentional [about] that, and the therapists we talked to in Northfield really stressed that too, because neither one of us are therapists.” said Barton. “The wellness idea actually came out of the idea of avoiding group therapy, because it was taking the more human everyday side of it. I’m not saying mental illness is not, but for everyone, the everyday side of mental health…is something everyone can talk about.”

Although Barton stressed that the course aims to coexist with SHAC, the main organization for mental health care on campus, Barton also noted that being unaffiliated with SHAC was an important part of their course design. “There have been people who have had positive experiences and negative experiences [at SHAC],” Barton said. “We are [intentionally] not affiliated with SHAC, because we wanted both of those people to be able to say that, and to be able to have those people in the room.”

In distinguishing the course from group therapy, Barton and Dulles established it as a supplement to, rather than an opponent of, SHAC. “SHAC is less concerned about wellness than illness,” Barton added.

Running it for the first time this fall, Barton and Dulles saw the class as a huge success, and they ran it again last winter, with four new facilitators and two courses running at once. Moving forward, Barton hopes that the course will continue to grow and change along with society and campus culture.

“The course is not perfect, nor will it ever be perfect, because it applies so much to the people involved in the course,” Barton said. But she’s optimistic that through regular evaluation of the course, they can keep the topic of mental health relevant and prominent on the Carleton campus.

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