Hundreds Turn out to Hear Fellow Students, Show Support for Mental Health Awareness
The large classroom on the fifth floor of Furst Hall has seen its share of large crowds. A popular venue for YU events given its large size, it has served as a popular host for several club and campus events. On Wednesday night, February 15, the room was filled again, with close to two hundred students attending a coed event featuring snacks and speakers.
But this was not your average club event or party. The students were there for the seventh annual “Stomp out the Stigma,” an annual event at which students speak candidly about their experiences and struggles with mental illness. Sponsored by the Counseling Center and the YU Active Minds Society, the event aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, and inspire those who think that they or a friend may need help to seek it.
The evening opened with brief words from New York City Councilman Andrew Cohen, who chairs the city’s Committee on Public Health. “Stigma is the number 1 barrier to people getting help,” he said. “Groups that might not have anything in common, have the stigma in common.”
In an exercise to display the prevalence of mental illness, index cards were placed under one fifth of the seats. Midway through the presentation, students were asked to stand up if a card was under their chair. This highlighted for all of the attendees of the event the remarkable statistic that one-fifth of adults in the U.S. struggle with mental illness.
Three undergraduates and one alumnus shared their stories with the crowd. By the end of the evening, the auditorium had seen tears, laughs, and much applause for the bravery of the students and the importance of their messages.
The first speaker liaison was Marc Fein, a YU graduate who is now a communal fellow and youth leader. Fein spoke candidly about his struggles with depression, which began in high school and plagued him throughout his college years. He spoke of the importance of reaching out to a friend who displays signs of depression, urging students to “have the uncomfortable conversation.”
“I didn’t ask for help,” because I was the one who helped others,” he explained. “It wasn’t until a friend told me that it was ok to talk and get help, that I was able to do so. If you had a physical illness, you would go to a doctor. Why should your mental health be any different?”
(He also reflected on his recovery from mental illness. “Depression defined my existence. It became my identity. Now it’s just a part of my identity. because I got help….When you break your knee and then go running again for the first time after your recovery, the first time you feel it think “oh my God, it’s going to happen again. But you learn to live with it.”)
While not shying away from conveying the seriousness of the issues with which he struggled, he also made a conscious effort to mix a few jokes into his remarks, explaining that “if you can’t laugh about it, there’s still a problem.”
The next speaker, a senior in Stern, reflected on her long and unique journey. Having struggled with anxiety since childhood, her mental illness became exasperated when she unknowingly entered an abusive marriage, and became a survivor of domestic violence. While having the courage to end the relationship, she experienced a worsening of her anxiety, and was later diagnosed with post traumatic stress.
She compared the situation to attempting to fix a rip in one’s carpet, only for the roof to cave in. Once you’ve finished clearing away the rubble, you’re so happy to be in a clean room that you forget about your original problem, and allow the rip to grow larger.
“I thought taking on the challenge of mental illness would mean just taking on another train car of baggage,” she said. “But now I know that what I was actually doing was putting a driver in the front seat. Admitting you need help isn’t sign of weaknesses. It’s a sign of courage.”
The third speaker, a junior in YU, spoke of his struggles with anxiety and depression, which were compounded when his family experienced a series of medical scares in a short period of time. After he initially ignored the signs, he knew he had to do something when his grades deteriorated, and even daily tasks, like going through his morning and bedtime routines, became taxing and exhaustive. He urged the students in attendance to notice signs of depression when they appear, before they become unbearable.
He also shared a message for those who notice a friend who may be depressed, discussed the difference between sympathy and empathy, and the importance of showing the latter, as well as relating to the person as a friend, as opposed to a special case. While it is important to want to help, he said, comments like “why are you always so depressed?” or “suicide is so selfish,”– can have the opposite effect on person who is struggling and should be avoided.
The final speaker, a first-year psychology major in Stern who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, began by quipping, “I don’t struggle with mental illness. I’m really good at it.” Echoing the theme of seeking help, she noted that 57% of people who dropped out of college due to mental illness never sought treatment. Describing her motivation to persevere despite the doubts of others, she recalled a particular instance in which someone told her “this isn’t a place for people like you.” Her response? “Watch me.”
She also stressed the importance of showing empathy, rather than pity, and not treating a friend dealing with mental illness differently because of their mental illness.
“The kindest thing someone ever said to me throughout this whole ordeal, was 'I’m not worried about you. You’ll be ok.'”
She concluded with a line that captured the theme of the evening: “I’m not asking you to relate to mental illness. I’m asking you to relate to struggle. Let’s be a school that defies statistics.”