By: Elliot Heller  | 

Stomping Out the Stigma of Mental Illness

Over 200 people packed Weissberg Commons on Tuesday night, May 4, as the Active Minds club held its sixth annual Stomp out the Stigma event, to raise awareness of mental illness and to promote healthy discussion of the serious, yet often socially taboo, issue.

After being carefully selected by Active Minds’ student liaisons and the counseling center, four YU undergraduates shared their powerful stories of struggle with mental illnesses ranging from eating disorders, to post traumatic stress, to generalized and social anxiety and clinical depression. While the first two speakers declined to use the microphone, their messages were heard loud and clear. Few dry eyes remained by the end of the evening.

Although the speakers revealed their identities at the event, the event was conducted under the premise that their identities would remain anonymous to anyone who did not attend the event to hear their stories.

The students’ speeches were preceded by a moving speech from Mrs. Ruth Roth of Teaneck, who lost her 21-year old son to suicide in 2013. Roth reflected on the progress that had been achieved in attitudes towards mental illness since her childhood. Raised in Brooklyn as the daughter of Polish immigrants, Roth said that in those days, while taking medication was common, mental illness itself was scarcely acknowledged, let alone discussed. While taking medication was common, it was viewed as short term quick fix (“if you were a bissel nervous, you took a little Valium,”) rather than as an encouraged avenue of treatment for a long term disorder. “Forty years ago, I would have said ‘I don’t know anyone with mental illness, I don’t know anything about mental illness.’ Looking back on that now I think, ‘How ridiculous is that?’

In telling her son’s story, Roth described how she and her husband came to the decision to tell friends and family the truth about how their son had died, and the incredible amount of support they received from the community once they did. While it was too late for her son, she urged the audience to take action and not shy away from seeking help at the first signs of mental illness, because “destigmatizing mental illness will save lives.”

Two of the speakers mentioned that the social stigma against discussing mental illness had been a major obstacle for them in seeking help. “One night my roommate asked me ‘have you ever thought about taking medication?’” one speaker shared. “All I could think was ‘oh no, she said the ‘M word.’” It was only after they took a step back and asked themselves what they would do if their mental illness were a physical one, such as diabetes, that they were able to confidently seek help. The results? “I gave up my dream of becoming an academic, which I realized wasn’t even my dream, and decided to go after my real dream of writing and publishing.” Another proudly declared: “I am 163 days clean, and I am 100% in love with life.”

To close the program, Martin Galla, LCSW, of the counseling center, spoke briefly, reminding students of the services and availability of the counseling centers on both campuses.

Said Gabriel Elyaszadeh, co-president of YU Active Minds: “Our goal [was] to de-stigmatize mental illness with this event by showing students that mental illness is not something that separates people. People who have mental illnesses, whatever they may be, aren't ‘abnormal.’ They are capable, well-rounded, normal people, who succeed in school and in different facets of their lives wherever they go.”