Committee for mental health focuses on CS community

Current+senior+Ananya+Cleetus+sits+in+Lincoln+Hall+on+Jan.+22.+Cleetus+is+one+of+the+three+members+of+the+CS+Mental+Health+Committee.

Ryan Ash

Current senior Ananya Cleetus sits in Lincoln Hall on Jan. 22. Cleetus is one of the three members of the CS Mental Health Committee.

By Elizabeth Sayasane, Features Editor

During the month of September, individuals and organizations whose lives and work revolve around mental health draw attention to Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Every year, thousands die by suicide. This month provides an opportunity to share resources and stories, destigmatizing the conversation and helping those in need.

Several students on campus recognized a particular need for mental health services within the computer science department at the University. To address this need, the CS Mental Health Committee was created.

Ananya Cleetus and Omar Khan, seniors in Engineering, Melissa Chen, junior in Engineering, are all members of this committee.

“We’re basically an organization that’s trying to promote a lot of mental well-being and awareness around mental health in the computer science community at U of I,” Cleetus said.

Their initiatives and programs range from de-stressing events to formal speaker presentations. They do policy work, making an effort to change policies concerning faculty training and available student resources.

They have also created a mental health forum. On this page, students can anonymously post about their concerns or stories and receive support from fellow CS students. They also have a page of mental health resources, as well as a guide on how to be a mental health ally.

“The reason why we need this organization is that mental health is something that’s a little bit less talked about in the CS community,” Chen said. “It’s apparently some big weakness to have a mental illness and to have to talk about it. This is not actually true; it should not be the case.”

Their latest initiative, in honor of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, is a postcard drive fundraiser.

From Sept. 11 to Sept. 25, people can purchase postcards, craft a personalized message and send it anywhere in the United States. It costs $3 for one, $5 for two or $9 for four. The message can be a photo, a video or a text, and they will put a QR code on the card.

All of the proceeds from this event will be donated to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The choice to send physical postcards was intentional on the part of the committee.

“We’re all connecting with each other virtually right now,” Chen said. “One of the reasons why we wanted specifically to do a postcard drive is to make sure people can connect with each other offline.”

They also have an option if someone wishes to support the initiative but does not want to send anyone specific a postcard. They can choose a templated message to send to the local nursing home.

From the start of the pandemic, many nursing homes went on lockdown, closing off visitors. Elderly people were not able to see their loved ones frequently anymore. The committee members figured this was one way they could help.

Chen said that they wanted to send postcards to nursing homes to remind people that they’re still loved and they’re still cared for, even though we may be far away from each other.

The entire initiative focuses on connecting people during this time of physical distance.

Khan said right now no one knows what connectivity will look like. We also do not know how these socially distanced semesters will affect students’ mental health.

“We just hope to provide students more and more opportunities and resources to be able to stay connected with each other and just be able to talk about their concerns and problems,” Khan said.

The rigor of the CS program already puts a tremendous amount of stress on students. Cleetus said the stigmas around mental health are particularly difficult to break through. The group is now working hard to foster discussions about general health and well-being.

The pandemic hindered their efforts, as it may have exacerbated any of the mental health concerns these students may have been facing.

Cleetus said, “I think the pandemic has really brought mental health to the forefront of student concerns … a lot more people are aware of how important mental health is in the overall health of a person.”

Moving forward, the committee is growing and coming up with more ideas for initiatives that will help their community. Cleetus said they have been coming up with different training exercises for students and faculty, ways to develop their forum and relaxation events.

“It’s extremely easy now to just be so, so isolated,” Khan said. “We’re here to support you, and we stand by you and we stand for you in every way we can.”

[email protected]