If you’ve noticed terms such as “self-care” becoming more prevalent in our cultural lexicon, it’s for good reason.
According to IU Distinguished Professor of Sociology Bernice Pescosolido, mental health is finally—and fortunately—having its moment.
“The reason you’re seeing mental health so visible is because three things happened. First, we finally got a decent research base. Then, students started talking about it, along with young Hollywood and young athletes. Then, COVID happened, and we realized that everyone has mental health. So, it’s sort of been this slow burn to a big explosion. But it was coming.”
Pescosolido has been a staunch advocate for mental health—particularly to end the stigma around mental illness—for more than a decade. She even appeared in the fall 2014 issue of Imagine, where she explicitly identified the next hurdle to clear: “We should focus on reducing the fear and prejudice, and replace them with acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion.”
To that end, IU recently received a helping hand … er, horseshoe.
Last year, the Irsay family, owner of the Indianapolis Colts NFL franchise, made a generous gift to establish the Irsay Institute on the campus of IU Bloomington, where Pescosolido now serves as one of the institute’s founding directors, in addition to her duties as founding director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research.
The institute’s goal is clear: “Support work in mental health services, stigma, and workforce development.”
“Kicking the Stigma” and beyond
The Irsays are no strangers to the cause of mental health. In 2020, they launched the “Kicking the Stigma” campaign, which has already raised considerable support for mental health resources. The campaign is described as a “comprehensive initiative to raise awareness about mental health disorders and remove the shame and stigma too often associated with these illnesses.”
But the cause hits close to home for the family’s patriarch, Jim Irsay. He’s battled mental health challenges in his personal life, often very publicly. “I know what it’s like to be at hell’s gates,” he told the Associated Press in October 2022. “I know what it’s like to feel the bars of hell and be in that darkness.”
With the goals of the Irsay family and IU aligning so closely, it was only natural for the two to tackle the problem together. Upon launch, the Irsay Institute boasted over 20 researchers from IU Bloomington and the IU School of Medicine who are working to advance and implement life-saving mental health research and treatment.
Make no mistake, though: Studying mental health is complex. Take its stigma, for example. How do you persuade the general population that something so inherently—sometimes painfully—personal should be shared openly with others? These are the types of questions researchers are exploring across fields ranging from sociology to epidemiology to molecular biology.
Easing students’ minds
The Irsay family’s support couldn’t come at a better time. A 2023 study by Gallup and Lumina Foundation found that mental health and emotional stress were the two most-cited reasons college students withdraw from their studies.
To reverse this trend, IU has rolled out a host of support resources. For starters, every IU student has access to free, 24/7 virtual mental health care services. That’s in addition to the many in-person mental health services available on campus. IU also provides programs that teach students, faculty, and staff how to become mental health allies, so that those living in our campus communities can better care for each other.
These support systems have proven to be as vital and in-demand as ever. In fact, as many as 6,000 students, faculty, and staff have sought support from IUPUI’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) over the course of a single school year.
A student who participated in a CAPS Understanding Self and Others group counseling program gratefully noted, “Seeing that others had similar experiences or thought processes made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”
Indeed, the student isn’t alone. In fact, that kind of honest, human-to-human impact is precisely the inspiration for the Irsay family’s dedication to the cause.
“When I do this work, it’s to try to save and help one person at a time,” Irsay told the Associated Press. “Not because of our brand, not because it looks good for the family to have a great charity. None of that stuff. It’s the empathy and the tremendous compassion that you develop as a human being. We’re taught from what we go through [that] we can share our strength, hope, and experience to alleviate suffering from others.”
You can support life-saving mental health programming at IU. Explore funding opportunities where you can make an impact.
This article was originally published in the 2023 issue of Imagine magazine.