As I sat waiting for You Are Not Alone (YANA) to begin last Thursday, I started to feel really anxious. I knew what to expect. I have attended the event since my first fall at the College, and I’m a member of the Mental Health Committee. But as students piled in, and the room grew warm with the buzz of shifting bodies and the energy of pent-up emotion, I began to sweat a bit. It felt like the nerves I get before piano recitals, only this time, I wasn’t there to perform, I was just there to sit and listen.
The space seemed to shrink as students crowded the edges of the room. Right at 7:30, the event was introduced and the audience hushed. As I sat and listened, my breath slowed and I sat back comfortably. The keynote speakers addressed the audience with quiet power and nuance, outlining some of the most difficult struggles in their lives and how they worked – and are still working – through them. When the floor opened up for the “open mic” portion of the night, several more students shared their stories. Students opened up about depression, suicide and self-harm, eating disorders, loneliness and even about the mind itself – about thoughts that enter uninvited and linger, making each day just that much harder. I cannot stress enough how honored I felt to be in the same space as these students and to feel their strength. And yet, somehow, even though I was engaged in the stories of my peers and inspired by their courage to speak, I left the event feeling much worse. I expected to feel sad at the end of the event. I did not expect to feel as alone as I did when it started.
I felt that the event wasn’t enough to hold all the pain felt by the student body; I felt like we weren’t doing enough.
In my hometown, I used to babysit my neighbor’s kids: a fourth-grader named Daniel and his older sister Lizzy. I was driving them home from Sunday school once when Daniel asked me, “Why do we give money to the church?” I paused, trying not to misstep with my words, but Lizzy jumped in before I had the chance to say anything. “So the church can help the poor,” she explained. I thought that would settle it, but Daniel turned to me again and asked, most urgently: “Well why don’t we just give our money to the poor instead?”
At the time, I stammered through an incomplete answer, but here’s what I would have said: A healthy church helps the poor not just by handing out food baskets at Thanksgiving, but by spreading a message. Justice arrives only at the moment where the congregation and even citizens beyond the body of the church understand their role as participants in the complex, interconnected society.
I don’t go to church anymore, but I believe in the fundamental truth of empathy. More than that, I believe that being “preachy” isn’t necessarily a bad thing and that elements of the College are quasi-congregational, secular though it is: We break bread together in Paresky, we rely on each other within and without the fabled entry system and whether we have emotionally or intellectually agreed or not, we have all “bought in” to the lofty claims and goals of the college.
Mental Health Committee started YANA to develop this community of empathy. Still, YANA is not a perfect event; there is a danger in the gap between the speakers and the audience, between performance and reality. Many of the students who shared stories seemed or claimed to be on the “upswing.” I observed a refrain of success in which students had fought their demons and sought out resources and were feeling much better – “good” even. I worry sometimes that this self-proclaimed conquering of mental illness is emblematic of a culture that seeks achievement and success at all costs. At a small school, no one wants to fall too far outside the norm and stigma still exists even within communities that strive for solidarity. I worry that those who need it the most don’t attend YANA, or perhaps sit quietly in the audience, wanting to but unable to speak.
I want YANA to resonate throughout the school until the power of love and empathy circulate freely between entries and co-ops, classrooms and sports fields. I don’t want the event to become just another part of the routine, like a “handout” to the poor instead of the systematic overhaul of economic injustice. But this takes work, energy and participation.
Perhaps the most shocking element of YANA is when people we presumed were “happy” reveal that they in fact are not. When someone is sick with some sort of mental illness, it is incredibly difficult for them to seek help on their own. It often takes friends and family to, at least initially, help them find treatment and care. Only 11 speakers had the chance to speak at this semester’s YANA. Imagine how many others are still fighting demons, still unhappy each day. Because of these concerns, it is imperative that as a community we devote more than 90 minutes each semester to conversations about mental health. How should we engage with each other? Who should ask the tough questions? What does empathy mean?
I sincerely thank everyone who spoke at the event and who gave the gift of love so freely to the College community. But I implore our community to not let the conversation end here, and find the strength of those eleven speakers to be a little more honest in our daily performances.
Celeste Pepitone-Nahas ’17 is an English major from Lake Oswego, Ore. She lives in Prospect.