'Recognize what other people go through': Student advocates for mental health, social justice

Wisdom Ibikunle poses in front of Woodburn HallView print quality image
Wisdom Ibikunle said helping others is a good way to step outside of yourself and not get bogged down in your own world. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

In high school, Wisdom Ibikunle said she often felt lonely as one of the few Black students in her classes, and she was reluctant to speak up about sensitive issues. At Indiana University, though, she has found her voice, acted on her passions and engaged in efforts to advocate for underrepresented students and destigmatize mental illness.

Ibikunle, a junior majoring in chemistry and sociology, serves on the College of Arts and Sciences' Diversity and Inclusion Advisory and Action Committee and is co-president of U Bring Change to Mind, a group that works to destigmatize mental illness on campus.

In March, U Bring Change to Mind is launching a green bandana campaign to identify allies of people who battle mental illness and to promote campus mental health services. It's also working with the Union Board on a question-and-answer event for the movie "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," about a student struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Last semester, the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory and Action Committee hosted a community discussion on topics such as the 2020 election, instances of police brutality and racism, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on student mental health.

"It's very easy to get bogged down in your own world," said Ibikunle, who grew up in northwest Indiana. "Helping other people is a really good way to take a step out of yourself and recognize what other people go through."

Her recognition of others' struggles and a desire to help has personal roots. Some people close to Ibikunle have either had episodes of severe mental illness or struggle with mental illness regularly. She said she recognizes how stigma affected their access to care and how they're viewed and treated.

"It's been really painful to see people I care about treated poorly because of something that's almost entirely out of their control," Ibikunle said. "I wanted to join a club where I could spread the message that people with mental illnesses are obviously people, too, but the stigma of mental illness makes it harder to get the care they need and only worsens their mental health. So, it's important to uplift their voices and their experiences, and give them spaces to talk about their mental health."

A woman holding an umbrella and hosting a table with T-shirts talks to two other womenView print quality image
Wisdom Ibikunle works at a table for U Bring Change to Mind at the 2021 Student Involvement Fair. Photo courtesy of Wisdom Ibikunle

She said it's critical to talk openly, allowing those with mental illness to feel comfortable disclosing their issues to an ally or mental health professional.

"COVID brought to the forefront mental health issues. People were in isolation, secluded and locked down. That's the silver lining," said Bernice Pescosolido, chair of the scientific advisory board for parent organization Bring Change to Mind, and faculty adviser for U Bring Change to Mind.

Ibikunle has inspired students to expand their thinking about mental illness and make the campus a stigma-free zone, Pescosolido said. "I think this is going to be a really good time for Wisdom to express her creativity and passion because it coincides with IU President Pamela Whitten's new initiative on student mental health," Pescosolido said.

The Diversity and Inclusion Advisory and Action Committee has given Ibikunle a platform to focus on underrepresented students and look for ways to achieve educational equity, Pescosolido said.

At the committee's Feb. 17 meeting, Ibikunle presented a report about the decline of underrepresented undergraduate students in STEM classes. The report illustrated resources available to them across the campus in various schools, departments and organizations, and highlighted the gaps that exist. The idea is to take what works in one place and apply it elsewhere.

"Educational equity ties in with social justice," said Ibikunle, who also is a teaching assistant in organic chemistry and a chemistry tutor. She said she wants to develop ways to keep underrepresented students on the path to STEM degrees.

Ibikunle and other students involved with equity and social justice offer valuable student perspectives for solutions, said Carmen Henne-Ochoa, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory and Action Committee.

Henne-Ochoa said Ibikunle is incredibly smart, driven and doing important work by keeping student challenges and needs on the radar of the committee's faculty and staff members.

"She is deeply committed to her community of peers of undergraduates and deeply committed to issues, and believes in the value of equity," Henne-Ochoa said.

Through the committee, Ibikunle is planning mental health awareness lunches in cultural centers on campus. The cultural centers provide a safe space, she said, and it's a way to bring the issue and mental health resources to students -- some of whom might otherwise be reluctant to seek services on their own. The hope is to have one or more this semester and then more next academic year.

After graduating, Ibikunle said she'd like to conduct research related to her interests in education and public health, such as health inequities and mental health.

"Attitudes have an impact on people's access. Attitudes are difficult to change, and they can be a form of barrier," she said. "I think they're important to study."