Brain Awareness Week highlights mental health issues


Photo: Annie Z. Yu
Student volunteers staffed information tables throughout the week, accompanied by a giant inflatable brain.

APU’s second annual Brain Awareness Week celebration gave students opportunities to visit lectures and informational booths around campus from March 11 to 17 to learn about this year’s theme: mental health issues.

Dr. Skyla Herod,
organizer of APU’s Brain Awareness Week and an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry, noticed APU did not celebrate Brain Awareness Week even though it has been around since 1996 and is celebrated in 82 countries worldwide.

“Lots of the big research schools…have very well-established outreach programs where they go out into the community and they teach about neuroscience and the progress and benefits of brain research,” Herod said. “I wanted to bring that to APU.”

Herod wanted to bring in speakers to show the APU community how neuroscience research affects their everyday lives. This year, she began to choose themes, beginning with mental health.

“I feel like it’s an issue that nearly everyone on campus is either personally affected by it or knows someone who is,” Herod said. “It’s an important issue… there’s still not enough understanding of the causes of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety because those are the most common, especially in this age group.”

This year’s Brain Awareness Week was sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Department of Biology and Chemistry and the Department of Psychology.

The keynote address by UCLA’s Dr. Ian Cook on Tuesday, March 12 focused on depression and anxiety.

“It was fascinating because [the speaker] showed what the physical symptoms of depression and anxiety are,” junior biochemistry major Janna-Victoria Calleja said. “His purpose of the lecture was saying, it’s not all just in your head.”

As an intern for Herod, Calleja helped organize the week. She hopes mental health becomes something that people aren’t afraid to talk about.

“I feel like there’s a certain stigma about it on campus. Like ‘Oh, you’re not praying enough, that’s why you feel that way,'” Calleja said. “But I believe it’s so much more than that.”

The panel discussion on Thursday, March 14 was driven by questions from the audience to a clinician, neuroscientist, pastor and theologian. Even though it was scheduled to end at 8:30 p.m., the discussion continued until 9:45 p.m. as the speakers continued to answer questions from the audience.

“There was so much interest from the APU community,” Herod said. “I felt like it was a very good healing time of understanding…maybe some areas where [as] the church and a community of believers, we haven’t done as good as a job as we can do at including those with mental health issues… and meeting their needs adequately.”

In addition to staffing the information tables throughout the week and attending the lectures, Herod’s 31 neurobiology students also put on a brain fair this week for Azusa seventh graders. While last year they only brought the fair to Center Middle School’s 250 seventh graders, this year they expanded the brain fair to involve all 750 seventh graders in Azusa United School District’s three middle schools.

“I think that’s a great opportunity to kind of start the ball rolling when they’re younger, and it’s a fun, exciting way to interact, to do hands-on education, which I am super passionate about,” senior biology major Leah Mark said.

The seventh graders got to learn about the brain through hands-on activities and experiments.

“They get to see and hold a real sheep brain and record electrical signals from neurons,” Herod said. “It’s just a very cool experience for them and it kind of augments what they get in a normal classroom setting.”

Herod hopes the brain fair will inspire the seventh graders to consider a future career in science while allowing APU students to serve the community.

Mark, one of Herod’s 31 neuroscience students, thinks Brain Awareness Week is a great opportunity for students to learn more about mental illnesses, an issue she says is highly relevant on a college campus.

“I think it’s something a lot of people struggle with or just aren’t aware of the severity of,” Mark said. “It’s not something that Christians should necessarily shy away from, but it should be something the church can talk about. And showing that healing can come through medicine and faith, that they’re both necessities in some cases.”

Herod has already decided on next year’s theme: TBI’s, which stands for Traumatic Brain Injuries.

“This is a hot topic now because of the rampant focus on sports-related concussion injuries,” Herod said. “I haven’t quite fleshed out all the details of that. I’m thinking I might like to get a student panel together for next year to talk about some questions that they have.”

Herod said over 300 students attended each event this year—about double the number of last year’s turnout.

“My hope is that the interest would continue to grow,” Herod said. “[I hope] that students would learn things that they may not have known about why neuroscience research is important, and not just for science geeks.”