How do we make brain health cool? I asked myself this question as I prepared to speak with the Hesburgh-Yusko scholars at the University of Notre Dame last week. I’ve been to enough college campuses to observe some painfully obvious trends. The demand for counseling services on college campuses is growing exponentially.  Although students are better about accessing help, they generally wait until problems boil to a crisis level. Nobody wants to be labeled as mentally ill, which inspires procrastination, which allows problems to fester and worsen.

I can’t help thinking that if students cared as much about having buff brains as buff bodies or a good complexion or an orthodontically perfected smile, mental illness might be curbed the way we’ve reduced cavities or heart disease. I developed a Top Ten for Mental Health Brain Protection and used this as a discussion topic for the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars.

Hershburg-Yusko scholars brainstorm about promoting brain health

These are bright students, future leaders that Notre Dame has identified and offered generous scholarships in hopes of transforming the world (hopefully while wearing some article of ND emblazoned clothing). I figured they might have a better idea of what’s “cool” for college students than me, an ND alum who is about to ship off her first to school. So I asked them: How do we get students to think about brain health?

Here are some of the responses:

  • Offer general help sessions out of the counseling center that deal with stress management (e.g., balancing academic schedules to avoid overload, handling a romantic break-up, nutrition impact on attitude, dealing with homesickness etc).
  • Form a student committee to help develop the topics and promote the help sessions.
  • Find key influencers in smaller groups to drive participation (e.g., have a special night just for the “Frisbee team” and get leaders in the organization to promote the event.
  • Offer greater focus on mental health maintenance in freshman retreats or on the “Contemporary Topics”  (life skills) course that is a freshman requirement.
  • Change the name “depression” or “mental illness” because those labels have a negative connotation.

One student lit up, “I’ve got it!” He thought ND should create a raffle. To enter the raffle, each student must list the top five methods that s/he uses to maintain mental health. The winner gets a free iPad. “That way,” he surmised, “they’d think about mental health without even realizing it!”

This student may be on to something: make mental health easy and fun. So much of our approach to mental health is downright depressing. We talk about deaths, suicide rates, mental illness, and problems getting worse.  Why not make mental health a game where everyone wins?

I told this young man if he created and executed his raffle idea, I’d fund it. An iPad is a small price to pay to create culture change. In any case, about thirty Hesburgh- Yusko Scholars connected behavior to brain health for two hours on a Friday afternoon on a football weekend.  Students with brains ignited with ideas to help themselves and fellow students. The fight song sounded in my head as clear as it did the next day when ND beat Stanford. Students helping students. Now that’s cool.

Estatic ND crowd after the Stanford victory (from my IPhone!)

For more information about Julie K Hersh or Struck by Living, please contact her website:

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