Speaking about mental health or mental illness can be difficult for students in college. It‘s a personal subject that not many people feel comfortable speaking about openly with others. This leads students to believe that maybe they can’t reach out—maybe they really are alone when that isn’t the case. Leah Beman, a junior studying Elementary Education at Iowa State University, used to be one of these students. As she went through her journey and grew, she realized that mental illness was nothing to be ashamed about and that getting people to talk about it would be helpful to so many out there. So she joined and became president of an organization that would provide resources and advocates for students with mental illnesses.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization; they associate with hundreds of state organizations and local affiliates. NAMI on Campus, the organization that Beman is a part of, formed in spring 2016 at Iowa State University and extends from the Iowa branch of NAMI.
“I wanted to make sure I could make a difference and provide resources, to reassure people that you’re not alone,” Beman replied when asked why she decided to join NAMI. She had her own painful experience with mental illness, and it drove her to want to be the person she needed when she was going through it. “I was diagnosed my senior year of high school with generalized anxiety, panic attack disorder and agoraphobia, and it was a lonely process to go through because no one would talk about it because it was an awkward subject,” Beman said.
As she spoke, the passion in her voice became clear. Mental illness has become so taboo with a stigma surrounding it, and it can be hurtful as well as detrimental for many going through these issues. “When I was diagnosed, teachers told me I was making excuses to get out of class and they made me stay even though I was on the verge of a panic attack. Friends would listen to me but they didn’t know how to help me or how to talk about it. I want to show people how to be able to talk about it, that it’s ok to talk about mental health and mental illness,” Beman said.
She’s doing exactly that as President of NAMI on Campus. As president, she makes sure the organization has a meeting every month and that they have a different speaker each time. Beman is the liaison between NAMI on Campus and NAMI Central Iowa, where she reports monthly to discuss the status of her own organization. She makes sure that activities such as the Mental Health Expo happen, or the Bandana project, where wearing a green bandana shows your support to end the stigma on mental health. She is also in charge of recruiting, but since the club is fairly new, their numbers aren’t so high yet. “It’s difficult to get people to want to open up about the subject sometimes because talking about such issues don’t normally happen,” Beman mentioned, but it certainly didn’t bring her down, and it doesn’t mean they were giving up on recruiting.
Iowa State does provide resources for students with mental health issues, but NAMI on Campus is a way for students to feel more comfortable about opening up, easily finding resources and knowing that they have the support of other students who are also going through similar situations. Bringing attention to the organization is important and one way to do that “is to work alongside Iowa State Police department, they are working with us tirelessly on making mental health a priority as well,” Beman says. Spreading awareness about the group and about mental health is the goal, which helps students feel comfortable approaching this subject.
Beman hopes to become a special education teacher once she graduates from college. “It is important that you get trained in mental health when getting into teaching; to be able to see the signs, if they are there, of mental illness. One has to be able to sense if there is a situation at hand and has to be able to be a teacher who can be supportive and understanding,” Beman says as she explains what it means for her to become a teacher and how NAMI is helping her reach that goal. She also hopes to stay involved with NAMI wherever she might end up after graduation as a board or committee member, but she wants to continue to be a part of that community. Helping people speak out, making sure they know they are supported and advocating against the taboo and stigma on mental health is what she is passionate about. It’s what she will continue to do as long as she can.
Being a victim of mental illness herself, Beman remains inspired to help others. Everyone, whether they’ve gone through it themselves or seen someone else go through it, has had an experience with mental illness and they should know that it is ok to not be ok. They should learn to be able to talk about it and learn how to help others going through it. Now, as president of NAMI on Campus, she has the chance to bring awareness to a subject that she is incredibly passionate about and that doesn’t get discussed nearly as much as it should. Mental health and mental illness are huge issues that many students go through, but it’s not an issue that anyone should have to go through alone.
Beman is one student who is ready to advocate and keep fighting to bring awareness to this topic and to help students realize they are not alone. She is an inspiration and students like her are the beginning of change for the better.