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Livingstone College addresses mental health in its holistic approach to education

By Tanya Turner

Livingstone News Service

SALISBURY — Livingstone College speaker Rwenshaun Miller recently provoked thoughts about the almost taboo topic of mental health.

The typical chatter of students was quickly silenced with opening questions from Miller during an assembly on March 8. After surveying the audience regarding the various ways people cope with stress, Miller used his personal story to address the issue of mental health.

Miller earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Montreat College. His passion for the field of mental health, which he’s worked in for a decade, was sparked by personal challenges. As a promising athlete in football, basketball and track during high-school, Miller had aspirations of continuing his athletic prowess in college.

The transition from high-school to college as a student-athlete posed more pressure than imaginable, and Miller nearly flunked out of school in his freshman year.

To cope, withdrew from friends and class. Feeling overwhelmed with a loss of his identity and a desire to hide his emotions and stress from family and friends, he lived inside his own head.

Life changed.

By his sophomore year, Miller stopped basic routine behaviors, including: eating, sleeping and bathing. Then, he began hearing voices.

Miller was raised in a loving and supportive family. His mother called regularly to check on his health. Despite an emphatic denial of his true emotional state, his mother sensed something was wrong and sent a family member to check on him. It was obvious that he was struggling mentally and posed a threat to himself and others. The family worked to address debilitating state, and Miller was checked into a mental facility and restrained in a straitjacket for two weeks.

Miller displayed the garment used to restrict movement by bonding arms to the chest. Negative connotations associated with mental health disorders were whispered in the audience. Crazy and psychopath were a few of the words used.

Familiar with the associations, Miller continued his questioning of the audience by inquiring how many students could relate to the following: feeling stressed, a desire to quit school, overwhelmed by their personal or academic life, depression, crying, daily use of drugs or alcohol and thoughts of suicide.

Most students raised their hand, admitting either they or someone they knew experiencing most of the behaviors Miller questioned.

Between his personal experience and his training in the field, Miller emphasized those thoughts and behaviors are characteristics of mental stress — not productive coping methods. He then asked the audience for examples of names that a person may be called if they admitted emotional challenges, which often lead to a negative mental state.

Miller shared that his personal experience led to multiple suicide attempts including putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger, which fortunately did not discharge. Unable to continue his academic career, he sought professional attention and was diagnosed bipolar with psychotic features. Counseling and medication proved beneficial, and Miller was able to return to school. However, he continued to live in shame about his mental state and sought to keep it a secret. Consequently, he stopped taking his prescriptions and began to self-medicate with alcoholic beverages in substantial amounts. The voices returned with increased frequency.

For years, none of his peers inquired about his mental health. Although, in retrospect, he was sure they noticed his compromised state. Miller emphasized the obligation we have to one another as a support system. He challenged students to ask each other if something is wrong. He also advised students to seek resources, many which are available on college campuses and costs are included in their tuition. Then, Miller closed with basic but essential directives.

“Hold each other accountable. Cope effectively. Don’t be afraid of who you are and if you need help, ask for it,” he said.

After Miller’s brief speech, Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Orlando Lewis, came to the stage with information about resources available on campus.

Lewis had key people in related departments to stand. Stephanie Jones is director of the Holistic College and Success Center with a multitude of resources for academic support. Pastor Troy Russell is the campus minister, and Elizabeth Pinckney is director of counseling services.

The 12th President of Livingstone College Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr., continues to strategize for a holistic approach to education. Through collaborative efforts with our department of public safety, several of students have received CERT awards.

Campus Emergency Response Team (CERT) is a program to educate students for disaster response. Livingstone’s CERT award recipients assist campus security at special events and are among the first responders to fire alarms in the dorms. CERT members facilitate classes in residence halls on fire safety.

“At Livingstone, we take into account academic and social factors of education. We are proud to conduct a program which prepares students for public service,” said Dr. Jenkins.

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