FARGO — It was after the suicide of a close friend in one of Fargo’s high schools that Preeti Chemiti began to look for ways to help.
She soon found setting up scholarships in the name of someone who took their own life was stigmatized.
“I lived in Fargo my entire life, and in my first year at Princeton I received a fellowship with the goal of promoting civic service. I felt like I needed to focus on mental health,” Chemiti said.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit during her sophomore year at Princeton University.
She began setting up a guidebook pertaining to student mental health focused on North Dakota, then realized after she was sent home during COVID-19 that the same issues applied to the rest of the nation.
Chemiti reached out to people she knew for help: Eric Lin, a sophomore at Princeton studying architecture and journalism, and Emma Watts, from Idaho, a National Honor Society scholar.
Armed with a $5,000 grant from Princeton, they began to conduct interviews with more than 150 high school and college students across all 50 states and outside of the United States. The guidebook, titled "Mind Matters," was published in 2020, and it’s free to download at www.mindmattersbook.org.
So far, more than 5,500 copies have been downloaded, Chemiti said, adding the authors are preparing a sequel.
The book's title, "Mind Matters," hopes to signify that student voices matter and mental health issues should not be stigmatized.
"Your mind matters," Chemiti said. “At its core, we want to highlight an issue that we felt was overlooked by our nation’s health care organizations. Initially, we didn’t think the pandemic would last this long."
The isolation from friends, the loss of opportunities like jobs and internships, and the uncertainty of the future are taking their toll on students, she said.
“This past semester has seen the highest rate of suicide within the Ivy League,” Chemiti said.
A March article published by ProPublica reported similar information, saying that in 2020 young students ages 11 to 21 were found to visit emergency rooms at a “significantly higher” rate with suicidal ideations or attempted suicides at higher numbers in 2020 compared to 2019.
“On top of these concerns, people everywhere are also generally struggling with death and loss in their communities,” the guidebook stated. The disruption, coupled with the fear of contracting the deadly virus, is leading many people to experience anxiety, stress and depression, it said.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five youth suffer from mental health conditions, and less than half of these students receive treatment. Additionally, one in 10 students have a mental health challenge that is severe enough to affect their behavior at home, school and in their communities.
The guidebook offers tips to detect mental health issues and to strengthen a person’s response. For instance, the guidebook suggests students maintain and build support systems, such as connections with friends and family, make new friends in clubs and classes, monitor symptoms that can be recorded daily, maintain healthy habits, avoid drugs and alcohol and find ways to reduce academic stress.
Although personal interactions online cannot compare to being face to face, one North Dakota person included in the guidebook said, “Without technology, socializing would have been extremely difficult and the situation would have been much more difficult to cope with. Talking to other people my own age helped me a lot to get my mind off of the situation and relax.”
The guidebook’s authors also investigated how students of color are experiencing an “even greater number of unmet health needs relative to white students.”
Often, Black communities exist at the intersection of racism, classism, sexism and health inequities, and their mental health needs can be exacerbated when compared to other ethnic groups, the guidebook said. Some barriers students of color face are limited availability and affordability of mental health services, insufficient mental health care policies, lack of education about mental illness and stigma.
Chemiti will distribute hard copies of the guidebook at Princeton later this year and hopes to also work with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.