You Are Not Alone sparks conversation about mental health

Students filled Goodrich Hall last Thursday night to listen to and participate in You Are Not Alone, a student-organized event meant to foster discussion about mental health challenges on campus. You Are Not Alone, which was organized by the newly formed Mental Health Committee (MHC), was the culminating event of Break the Silence Week, a four-day Active Minds initiative to help raise awareness and promote discussion about depression and suicide. 

You Are Not Alone began with a series of stories from three student keynote speakers who described their experiences with depression and substance abuse. A fourth speaker, who planned to talk about disordered eating, was not able to participate.

The keynote speeches were followed by an open microphone session, during which students could volunteer to address the group and share their own stories. Some of the open microphone speakers discussed their own encounters with clinical depression and attempted suicide, while others told stories of the stressful academic and social culture at the College. All speakers invariably received loud rounds of applause as they returned to their seats.

For many students, the tone set by both the speakers and the audience was open and accepting, and many of the later open microphone speakers stated that they had not arrived with the intention of speaking but had been persuaded by the tone of the discussion and the preceding stories. “I, personally, was incredibly moved by the openness, honesty and sincerity of every speaker who stood up at that microphone and told his or her story,” Taylor Nutting ’14, Active Minds co-president and MHC member, said.

Some students were also surprised by how affected they were by the evening’s stories, regardless of their experience, or lack thereof, with mental health challenges on campus. “Even though each person’s story was different, I was surprised that they all, to some extent, resonated with me,” Hetal Ray ’12 said. “I realized that mental health is not an unknown topic for me. I have had many mental health related discussions with people around me but failed to recognize them as such.”

Between 200 and 300 students attended You Are Not Alone, including roughly 50 who stayed well beyond the event’s allotted two hours to listen to open microphone speakers.

Representatives from Psychological Counseling Services (PCS) and the chaplain’s office were available in separate rooms to talk to students affected by the evening’s discussions. According to Margaret Wood, co-director of PCS, the auxiliary role played by PCS and the chaplain’s office was the result of insistence on the part of the MHC that the event remain open only to students.

“Although I might have wished for [PCS] and the chaplain’s office to have a more visible presence on Thursday night, I can also appreciate the impulse to preserve the safety of a peer environment to share disclosures with authenticity and vulnerability,” Wood said.

While some attendees came with the intention of speaking during the open microphone session, many more students were there to show their support for others. According to Jillian Schwiep ’13, Peer Health coordinator and MHC member, many of the speakers had “mixed support in terms of who was in the audience for them. One first-year who spoke had several entrymates come, along with her Junior Advisors, while one athlete who spoke commented that his team didn’t understand why he would be attending, and he seemed to feel a lack of support from them.”

“The event was a beautiful and moving experience and it went better than I or the committee could have ever hoped for,” said Francesca Barrett ’12, College Council co-president and MHC co-chair. “The number of people who came to the event to listen and the large number of students who chose to speak demonstrates how important this issue is.”

According to Dean Bolton, You Are Not Alone offered students an experience not provided by private discussions in the deans’ or chaplain’s offices or by counseling from PCS. “Students speaking showed that it is possible to be open, honest, authentic and vulnerable with one another,” Bolton said. “By listening and supporting those sharing their stories, [they] made it clear that being open was safe, and that Williams can be a place where students nurture one another even through the hardest times.”

Break the Silence Week also included a suicide memorial, entitled Remembering 1100, on Oct. 24. As part of the Remembering 1100 memorial, 1100 white flowers were scattered across Chapin lawn, symbolizing the 1100 college students who commit suicide each year in the United States.

Other events included The Truth About Suicide, a film and discussion session with PCS counselors on Oct. 25, and Spectrum of Depression, a dinner and discussion on Oct. 26.

The MHC has published a series of goals to guide its work as its members continue to meet throughout the year. These goals include institutionalizing You Are Not Alone, improving Peer Health’s peer counseling program and co-sponsoring a forum on “effortless perfection” with the Minority Coalition. The MHC also plans to bring speakers to campus in an effort to expand the mental health conversation at the College, and is considering running a similar event to You Are Not Alone later in the year.

Other student groups – CC, Active Minds and Peer Health – will also continue to work on addressing mental health issues through a variety of programs. According to Nutting, “There are infinite possibilities to work with, and now that we know how much the campus cares – and should care – we have an opportunity to actually make things happen.”

 

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