Cal Poly Commencement Office/ Courtesy Photo

Neil Sandhu is a biomedical engineering junior and Mustang News staff writer. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints or editorial coverage of Mustang News. 

The world that we now share bears stark differences to the one that the class of 2016 brought with them as they moved into the residence halls. In the past four years, we have weathered the Arab Spring, ridden the rise and flop of #Kony2012 and endured the indiscriminate massacre of school children at Sandy Hook. The past half-decade has been a tumultuous time marked by myriad tragedies, but for advocates of mental health awareness, there have been some triumphs.

For decades, mental health advocates have fought for disorders to be regarded as not just treatable, but tangible; from combating the notion that “it’s all in your head” to pushing for access to treatment to be universal, and not just for the extreme cases. One such push has come from Cal Poly’s “Buck the Stigma” campaign, an effort that targeted common misconceptions and fallacies about mental health. During the week of May 16, students could see — not just in their reflection in the mirrors around the Recreation Center — posters that promoted positive self worth.

These efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by biomedical engineering senior and Recreation Center employee Keara Haldeman. Haldeman knows that while the campus has made strides toward open conversations, there is still more ground to cover. Haldeman points to the current state of the youth as an indication of the work that needs to be done.

“One thing I have noticed is that there’s a lot of focus on self-efficacy, and how we should raise our kids,” Haldeman said.

She alludes to the pressure during the college application process as being an unnecessary and potentially harmful burden on students.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be telling our kids they can get into every school, maybe we need to be more realistic and allow them to understand that failure isn’t always a bad thing,” she said.

Haldeman thinks there needs to be a balance between the two. According to her, we shouldn’t tell our kids that they aren’t good enough, but we should allow them to see their limitations. That way, when they inevitably encounter failures later in life, they understand not just how to start over, but the importance of learning that our failures are never permanent. Haldeman stressed how important it is to fail, as students will have a healthier relationship with it, ultimately leading them to not just growth and maturity, but a better sense of self-worth.

Failure is no foreign subject to mechanical engineering associate professor James LoCascio; he practically teaches a class on it every quarter. LoCascio is known for his demanding course load and dismissive “I’ll see you next quarter” attitude that he has for inattentive students. However, there is nothing more important to LoCascio than the mental health of his students.

“When I teach, I write on all four walls, all around the class. Do you know why? Because I want to see each one of my students up close. I want to know what’s going on in their faces,” he said.

LoCascio’s fierce advocacy for students battling mental health disorders reaches farther than the equation-covered walls of his classroom. In the wake of the Isla Vista shootings in 2014, LoCascio stood up in an Associated Students, Inc. meeting to say “I’m going to be the only one to say this, but I urge you to have compassion for the shooter.”

For LoCascio, the battle for mental health treatments is not reserved just for those who seek it, but also those who never had the opportunity.

LoCascio recognizes the steps society has taken to destigmatize mental illness in the years since the class of 2016 first came to Cal Poly, however, his push now is toward treatment. LoCascio, a diabetic, draws parallels from his blood sugar to the chemical imbalance that is the root cause of most mental health disorders.

“They don’t have a blood machine, to look at at any moment and see what’s going on. There is no machine for them to fight the demons that show up in their head. And it’s not that they are always there.”

LoCascio is urging society to not let youth become canaries in a coal mine, only treating mental health disorders after cataclysmic events. He urges us to focus on stable, constant and sustainable health. For LoCascio, the next half-decade should be about treatment, not just bringing the skeletons out of the closet.

Over the past four years, the class of 2016 has worked toward more than just a degree. They, along with the world as a whole, have pushed for more advocacy and access treatment for all of those living with a mental health disorder, and they’ve been rewarded with real, tangible progress. Though there is no diploma for this achievement, its celebration truly deserves more pomp and circumstance than confetti and gowns can offer.

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