Monday Profile-Ali Roberts

UW-La Crosse sophomore Ali Roberts is a member of Active Minds, a student-run mental health awareness group.

Ali Roberts calls it her “support system.” She lost control when her boyfriend committed suicide, and it was friends and family who lifted her out of her depression, Roberts said.

Three years later, Roberts smiles as she talks about college, playing soccer for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Eagles and the future. Her support system spurred the recovery process, she says, and she’s trying to help others like her find the same strength.

That’s why she joined Active Minds, a fledgling student-run group at UW-L trying to connect students with counseling services and dispel mental health stigmas.

“People need people, I think,” Roberts said.

Her last conversation with her boyfriend, David, was about their plans for the upcoming winter break. When she woke up the next morning, she had a lengthy text message from David, filled with words of love and encouragement.

She knows now it was David’s goodbye, Roberts said.

Roberts declined to use David’s last name in her interview with the Tribune.

Mental health is a problem on college campuses, but it’s a problem many students refuse to discuss. Students her age struggle with eating disorders and severe stress, but talking about depression isn’t “cool,” Roberts said.

“Why shouldn’t I be able to walk up to one of my friends and be like, ‘I’m sad?’” Roberts said. “There are a lot of people out there who hold in stress and sadness and anxiety.”

Active Minds is a national organization, but members of the UW-L chapter focus on outreach to their fellow students.

The group’s motto: “Laugh more.”

It’s not counseling, group president Emily Alexander said, though some students join Active Minds because of personal experience. It’s about spreading the word.

“We really want to focus on reminding students to have that positive, healthy experience,” Alexander said. “I think ultimately it’s being that voice, that this is a topic that isn’t talked about a lot, and a lot of students deal with it.”

While the prevailing attitude might be to ignore or overlook mental health problems, those problems are hard to ignore. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for all 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In a 2011 survey by the Institute, about 30 percent of college students reported being “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at least once in the past year.

Student fees at UW-L cover counseling sessions, and the Counseling Center offers both one-on-one and group therapy.

Ryan McKelley, faculty adviser for Active Minds, doesn't know for sure why students hesitate to seek help, though he suspects a “boot-strap mentality” might be to blame, as well as concerns about privacy.

McKelley is an associate professor in UW-L’s psychology department, and a practicing clinician.

“We believe that we should be able to take care of our problem ourselves,” McKelley said. “Having to rely on someone else is a sign of weakness.”

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Roberts’ childhood was bookended by personal tragedy. She was 7 years old when her aunt drove to a cemetery and shot herself in the car, Roberts said.

Haunted by her aunt’s suicide, Roberts was too afraid to sleep alone, said her mother, Janet Hankes-Roberts.

“She slept on our hardwood floor next to our bed,” Hankes-Roberts said. “She slept with us, blanket and pillow, for probably two years after that.”

Roberts’ hometown of Columbus, Wis., population 4,991, is the type of place “you kind of know everybody,” she said.

David was always the life of the party, Roberts said.

“He was a great guy,” Roberts said. “One of those people that always is just trying to make other people happy.”

They started dating when Roberts was a freshman. David, a senior, soon went away to college at UW-Whitewater. Except for one visit to UW-Whitewater's counseling services, David seemed doing fine in college, Roberts said. 

David often came to her if something was wrong, Roberts said.

“This one time, I guess, he decided not to,” Roberts said.

David was alone for the weekend when he hung himself. Hankes-Roberts was afraid to let her daughter out of her sight.

“The parenting book sort of went out the window, and I flew by the seat of my pants,” Hankes-Roberts said. “This doesn’t happen to every kid.”

Roberts sank into a depression. She went on anti-depressants and self-medicated with alcohol.

“A lot of unhealthy things,” Roberts said. “I didn’t handle it all very well at first.”

She depended on her family for help.

“I pretty much carried her on my shoulders for about a year,” Hankes-Roberts said.

Roberts is working on a degree in recreation management, and she’s optimistic about her future. She can be open about David because she spent years talking about the experience with family and friends, Roberts said.

Her support system.

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