Active Minds Stomps Out the Stigma in Most Successful Year Yet
On April 16th, YU Active Minds held its annual “Stomp Out the Stigma” event, aimed to destigmatize mental illness in the Yeshiva University community. The event showcased four students’ stories and their struggles with and triumphs over mental illness. Each speaker concluded with their lessons for the student body.
Active Minds, a non-for-profit organization national organization has chapters throughout America’s universities, models itself on strong student-run leadership. Sarah Robinson and Yosef Schick, the co-Presidents of the YU chapter of Active Minds, planned this pivotal event for many months. In addition to her work in Active Minds and Stomp Out the Stigma, Robinson, a Stern senior majoring in Psychology and Jewish studies, also runs a similar event at the Mount Sinai Jewish Center, volunteers in SOVRI to address sexual violence in the Jewish community, and is a board member of Elijah’s Journey, a Jewish organization for suicide prevention. In an interview with Sarah after the event, she shared that an important lesson she has learnt is that people “have to take their emotions seriously.” Active Minds specifically, she says, has “exposed me to a world of students who have gone through enormous hurdles in maintaining their mental health.” Robinson herself has also overcome hurdles, though of a different sort, in leading YU’s chapter and planning for this event in particular, listing off the dozens of hours spent on details ranging from appointing board members to specific layouts on posters. Still, Robinson takes pride in her work: “As a club head, my goal is to create a community to feel we belong, to feel we matter. I felt I had an opportunity to create a board as passionate about mental illness as I am.”
The passion of the board is integral to the success of YU Active Minds. Members helped create their own initiatives beyond Stomp Out the Stigma, including a Beren Campus event earlier this year, co-run by Sara Rozner of the Active Minds board and the Writing Center, focusing on writing anxiety. One of the most popular Active Minds programs this year, with hundreds in attendance, involved bringing therapy dogs into Stern to relieve stress and anxiety. “It helps make coping with mental illness more accessible” Robinson said of this event and others run throughout the year.
Several Active Minds board members, including Arel Levkovich, Jannah Eichenbaum, Rivka Pahmer, and myself, served as Speaker Liaisons, who interview, select, and prepare the speakers for the daunting task of sharing their personal stories with the student body. It is often an emotionally trying job. “Speaker Liaisons have taken many roles in this event” Robinson remarked, “going well beyond anything I expected…they worked together as a team, creating a vision.”
Most the credit goes, however, to the speakers who muster up the courage to share their deeply personal and difficult stories with the student body. Speakers are selected for their stories and their speaking abilities. Two men and two women are chosen, as gender stereotypes, in addition to stigma, often characterize perceptions of mental illness. “Mental illness is often associated with females,” Robinson remarked when asked about the distinction between her work in Beren and Wilf. “Women are often viewed as more emotional. Male culture is embodied in a macho unemotional gender stereotype. We made it our business to have two males and two females to speak. Men especially need to know that mental illness does not distinguish between male and female; mental illness just happens.”
The mental illnesses the speakers have lived with could indeed be experienced by anyone: depression, anxiety, ADHD, compulsive disorder, and PTSD. Given this, the role of the speakers was summed up succinctly by one: “we can move on from labels and discuss what this actually means for me, because that’s just a bunch of alphabet soup and jargon.”
What these illnesses often meant for speakers was isolation from loved ones, difficulty in school, self-harm, and coping with the side-effects of medications. Robinson explained that “you might wonder why someone in their right mind would do this [share their experiences]. I think the reason…is to show themselves and others that they’re strong: that mental illness, while sometimes debilitating, does not run their lives. They provide an enormous amount of chizuk (support) to other students suffering in silence.”
The chizuk was in the courage they displayed in speaking, and in the lessons they shared with the student body; “if you have someone close to you with a mental illness…reach out, say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’,” one shared, while other advice included “it’s important to make sure that after something traumatic happens, you talk to people and you don’t just keep it all bottled up inside,” and “don’t let other people’s vision of normal dictate who you should be.” Yosef Schick, himself a speaker, finished by making a request of the student body: “I need you to make sure that for those with mental illness there is no silence.”
The event could not have been a success without the supportive student body. Over 200 RSVP’d to the event via Facebook, the audience more than doubling those of previous years despite the event’s position at night before the weekend. The auditorium was filled to the brim, with students spilling over into the back and sides once the seats were filled. The deafening applause after every speech certainly gave me hope that, from these students, there would be no silence.