A lot can happen in eight months. Just ask 2016 Homecoming King Pat Finn, who in that amount of time took a dream and made it reality.

Finn, who’s putting his 2017 marketing degree to use working at Snagajob in Arlington, Virginia, began his senior year on a mission to raise mental health awareness. Backed by the German Club, Finn campaigned for Homecoming King by igniting a conversation about mental health.

It started with a video featuring Virginia Tech students sharing their perspectives on the subject, which often go unspoken.

“For me, there are people that I’m close with struggling with this lonely problem, fearful that others would find out because of the negative stigma,” said Finn in his video introduction.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults (about 43 million people) in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year, but fewer than half of those adults received mental health services in the past year.

These statistics motivated Finn to organize an event promoting mental health awareness. With the guidance of Herbert Bruce, associate director of the University Academic Advising Center, Finn planned and executed “Be the One,” which took place May 3, 2017, following Finals Extravaganza. Finn donated most of his $1,000 Homecoming King award to the event.

The two-hour event featured a cookout at German Club Manor and a series of speakers who shared personal stories about mental health and professional insight to the topic. Before leaving the program, attendees wrote down on a notecard what they’d taken away from the event.

“After collecting those and reading them, it seems like we really made a positive impact on people,” Finn said.

His own biggest takeaway was learning that “even the smallest stigmatic phrase,” like “whack-job” or “psycho,” mentioned in a conversation unrelated to mental health can contribute to the misunderstanding of and ignorance toward mental health issues.

“I really don’t think that those words are phrases you should throw around,” Finn said. “I’m trying to actively mitigate and alleviate use of those words from people’s vocabulary because you never know who you can affect.”

Finn discovered that many Virginia Tech students shared his opinion and passion for addressing the stigma associated with mental health. Multiple people reached out to him through his Finding Hope with Finn Facebook page to thank him for choosing mental health as a Homecoming campaign topic, he said.

“Every single time I would get one of those messages I would light up and feel like we were really making a difference,” Finn said. “It was so cool to be able to open up the conversation. We’re all vulnerable and we need to be there for each other. It’s just such an important topic.”

According to the 2016 annual report by the Penn State Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), 61 percent of college students who sought mental health services at colleges or universities who partner with CCMH listed anxiety as a contributor to their distress. Depression, stress, family issues, and academic performance were among other frequently noted contributors.

Virginia Tech has several resources available to students to help manage and overcome mental health challenges:

  • Cook Counseling Center offers individual and group counseling services for a variety of mental health concerns. The center is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at three locations.
  • Hokie Wellness offers student workshops and other programs including online classes and wellness coaching. A comprehensive list of resources on and off campus is available online.
  • The Women's Center, which serves all genders, offers counseling and sponsors the annual Take Back the Night rally and march.
  • The Dean of Students Office supports and empowers students and families in crisis and challenging situations. A member of the dean's staff is on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Active Minds at Virginia Tech, a student-led organization created to increase awareness about and remove the stigma of mental health, hosts campus events throughout the year.
  • Services for Students with Disabilities assists students with disabilities to solve personal and environmental issues that may interfere with full access to academics or hinder academic performance.

Written by Tiffany Woodall