Student group focuses on breaking the stigma surrounding mental health

Contact: Erin Flynn
A student writes a positive message in chalk on the sidewalk.

X-Hale worked with the Western Student Association to help coordinate a chalk-writing event during Mental Health Week. Students wrote words of encouragement and also performed spoken word poetry about mental health.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The novel coronavirus has sparked a global health crisis unlike any experienced in recent history. It has disrupted businesses, schools and physical connections. Not surprisingly, it's taken a significant toll on mental health—particularly among young people.

"I'm an outgoing person. For me to be stuck in the house every single day for (several) months was driving me insane," says Precious Onyegbule, a senior at Western Michigan University. "You can't see your friends. You can text your friends, Facetime them all you want, but not being able to see them and have fun with them, that was draining me personally. So, when I was finally able to come back to Kalamazoo (for school) and see my friends, I felt my mental health rising."

A recent Active Minds survey found 89% of college students are experiencing stress or anxiety as a result of COVID-19, and a quarter of students surveyed say their depression has significantly increased. But there is a silver lining: Two-thirds of students report an increase in supporting others with their mental wellness. It's a mission Onyegbule is helping to move forward as vice president of X-Hale, a Registered Student Organization—RSO—established to help break down stigmas surrounding mental health among students and encourage healthy behaviors.

"It's an organization that's meant to help students to cope with anything happening in their lives," says Jae'-Mikkel Reid, a WMU senior who started X-Hale in 2019. "The stigma with mental health is, 'It's not real. It’s all in your head,' which is false."

The group has regular meetings to talk about various topics, which are currently being conducted virtually, presenting research-based solutions to improving mental well-being. It's also started sending out daily text messages to members this semester containing words of affirmation and motivational quotes.

A group of students poses for a picture.

X-Hale partnered with Phi Beta Sigma fraternity for an event about mental health.

"People don't always understand how a lot of things happening in the world relate back to mental health. When Kobe Bryant passed away, we talked about how grief can affect you mentally," says Reid. "Social justice, or social injustice, that can affect people—especially African Americans. They are afraid—they see videos of African Americans being killed—and that affects how you move in your daily life."

X-Hale has partnered with other RSOs for events focused on forming connections and creating safe spaces for students to talk about mental health issues. The group is hoping to continue to grow on campus as students feel more comfortable opening up, having difficult discussions and leaning on each other.

"This is something that I struggled with and didn’t want to admit to myself," says Onyegbule, who says being involved in the group is as much about helping her peers as it is about improving her own mental wellness.

"In order to make them comfortable, you've got to open yourself up," adds Reid. "Nobody's judging you. Everything that's said in that room stays in that room. It really starts with us being vulnerable."

X-Hale also played a part in helping to organize and plan Mental Health Week on campus, which focused on educating students about mental health resources available to them, like Sindecuse Health Center and the WellTrack self-help app, as well as offered some outlets to focus on self-care, like an outdoor meditation session, a socially distant hike and therapy dogs to relieve stress.

"We're social distancing, but we're doing things together. We're still trying to get that unity down because mental health is messed up right now, but as long as we're coming together as a student body, that’s what matters," Reid says.

He hopes to continue the mission of X-Hale even after he graduates, pursuing his passion to help others struggling with mental health concerns. He's exploring registering the group as a nonprofit so that he can expand its reach beyond campus.

"I want people to understand that mental health should be a priority everywhere. It's an issue facing college kids, it's facing adults; it impacts everybody."

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.