Boston University: Revealing Secrets Can Help Students
By Kristin Blank
What if you knew the secrets that troubled your friends, colleagues, and strangers on the street?
In 2010, the Boston University (BU) Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation gathered 1,000 anonymous messages from students in an effort to help students experiencing emotional pain understand that they are not alone.
“I don’t think anyone from here at school will miss me over the summer, because I haven’t really gotten that close to anyone here. I feel unspeakably pathetic about this.”
“I’m afraid to have kids because they might get my depression. But I think I would make a really great mother.” “Sometimes things have gotten so bad that I’ve seriously wanted to die. My mom is the only reason why I wouldn’t. I love you.”
Modeled after Frank Warren’s national PostSecret campaign, BU Secret is a critical part of BU’s mental health promotion and suicide prevention activities made possible by the SAMHSA Campus Suicide Prevention grant that BU received in 2009.
BU is a large university with 16,000 undergraduates and 13,000 graduate students living on and off campus, which stretches a linear mile-and-a-half down both sides of busy Commonwealth Avenue.
“The actual physical layout of campus is not conducive to creating a sense of community immediately for students,” said Dori Hutchinson, Sc.D., the center’s Director of Services.
Lawrence E. Kohn, M.S., the center’s Director of Development agreed. “There’s an underbelly of community, but for some students, the campus can be very isolating and alienating.”
In addition, as on many college campuses, BU students have expressed feeling shame over talking about emotional or mental health problems, so Dr. Hutchinson and Mr. Kohn are focusing their efforts on raising awareness about campus mental health resources and encouraging students to talk about what they’re feeling.
“Creating a sense of community is a large aim of our SAMHSA grant,” said Dr. Hutchinson.
BU Secret is the most visible activity BU is conducting to combat feelings of shame and raise awareness of mental health resources on campus, she said.
In 2010, the center mailed blank postcards to 8,000 undergraduates and asked them to write out an innermost secret, decorate the card, and return it.
The 1,000 cards received were divided among four highly trafficked residence halls and displayed for 2 weeks. “Students could read the cards and not feel so alone,” said Mr. Kohn. “They realize that so many others are walking around with pain.”
“Around the postcards, we listed in a ticker-tape style all of the mental health resources on campus,” Dr. Hutchinson said. The project has support on all levels of the university, from faculty to the Dean of Students to the Board of Trustees.
The project was done as part of the campus’ Active Minds activities, and as a result, BU was named the Chapter of the Year in 2009–2010. PostSecret creator Frank Warren is now working with the Active Minds national office to expand the program nationwide in an initiative called PostSecretU. (For more information about Active Minds, see SAMHSA News online, May/June 2009 and September/October 2010.)
Another BU Secret campaign is underway, with postcards slated for display in spring 2011. To see a video of the postcards, visit SAMHSA News online.