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ASU student seeks to charter mental health club on campus

A member of USGD is laying the groundwork for an ASU chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness

Ernesto Hernandez, the vice president of services for Undergraduate Student Government Downtown, poses for a photo. A nonfeasance charge was leveled against Hernandez in April 2017.

Ernesto Hernandez, the vice president of services for Undergraduate Student Government Downtown, poses for a photo. A nonfeasance charge was leveled against Hernandez in April 2017.

One ASU student is taking the initiative to help build a community on campus designed to lift the stigma on mental illness among students.

Ernesto Hernandez, a sophomore who studies public service and public policy, said his position as vice president of services for Undergraduate Student Government Downtown helped guide him into chartering The National Alliance on Mental Illness at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus.

According to NAMI’s website, it is the nation's largest grassroots organization dedicated to advocating for mental health. Currently, there are NAMI chapters in multiple locations in Arizona, including at UA and Phoenix College.

Hernandez said he felt the University has enough resources to bolster NAMI’s overall mission to end the stigma of mental illness in the student community.

“Bringing NAMI, bringing that nationally known nonprofit organization to campus is something that I wanted to do because I knew that NAMI has the support, they have the resources to bring to our students to bring awareness to mental illness,” he said. “Bringing NAMI’s expertise, educational background and their services to the Downtown Phoenix campus — and to ASU in general — is essentially what I want to do to end that stigma.”

According to NAMI’s ‘Mental Health By The Numbers,’ for every five adults in the U.S., one experiences mental illness in a given year.

Hernandez said he found the statistic to be disheartening.

“To me, that number is very staggering,” he said. “It really does break my heart to see so many students on campus and know that one in five possibly may be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime.”

Although the club has not yet been established on campus, Hernandez said he plans to have it up-and-running by spring break.

“Currently we’re staffing an executive board,” he said. “We just found an advisor so we’re trying to meet with the advisor right now to get everything set in stone and once the advisor does commit, we’ll be able to move on.”

Planning the inner-workings of the club will also be the responsibility of Hernandez’s incoming NAMI vice president Casey Rhode, an interdisciplinary studies freshman. 

“So basically what I’m going to do is try to gather more members,” Rhode said. “We are setting up our executive board as we speak and I’ll be helping with interviews … We help each other find advisors who would be a good fit for our organization would be able to help us along the way.”

Rhode said the club will be centered around open discussion and education on mental illness.

“We want students to be open talking to us and talking to other people if they need help … so that people are more educated and are more aware of other people who are struggling with the same things they are.”

Craig Sparrazza, 64, is the president of NAMI Valley of the Sun. He said he met with Hernandez at NAMI’s annual Arizona meeting, where they discussed Hernandez’s initial plans about chartering the club at ASU Downtown.

“He definitely has a lot of passion for what he’s doing and I thought it was a huge undertaking, what he’s trying to do,” he said. “I said ‘what you need to do is create a movement while keeping your genre.’”

Sparrazza said Hernandez’s efforts in chartering the club at a college campus will greatly benefit NAMI’s outreach.

“We were looking to bring in younger members,” he said. “You see all this young potential and talent drop out because of the stress of academic life. I think with these support groups … It gives them an additional resource to help them navigate their four or five or six years they’re gonna be in the University.”

Sparrazza said mental health support is always beneficial, especially in an environment where the turbulence of academia may overwhelm students.

“Having an organization on campus to where people dealing with various mental illnesses, depression, anxiety — whatever it is — need to have a community of support,” he said. "College is tough. I’ve been through my master’s, it’s not an easy road and if you’re dealing with a mental illness, you can navigate it if you’ve got the proper support.”

Hernandez said the NAMI’s support will be offered to all students, regardless of their place on the social spectrum.

“NAMI on campus is open to every single student regardless of race, sexual orientation, identity, ethnicity, background or major — it doesn’t matter where you come from, we’re all in this together to end the stigma of mental illness, and we are just ready to hit the ground running.”

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