Speak Your Mind: Active Minds’ Stigma Panel facilitates conversation about mental health

Haley Fuller and Sammi Boas

SAMMI BOAS: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas.

HALEY FULLER: And I’m Haley Fuller. Welcome to Speak Your Mind, a bimonthly podcast dedicated to discussing mental health and self-care on Northwestern’s campus. Our goal is to facilitate a conversation about mental health that goes in-depth about what students are really experiencing and try to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health.

BOAS: This week we’ll be discussing the Stigma Panel put on by the Northwestern chapter of Active Minds, a nonprofit dedicated to mental health education and awareness for college students.

FULLER: The event was held on Sunday, November 10 in Kresge Centennial Hall with an audience of about 30 students and five panelists. The event aimed to help students share their stories to show that no one is alone and to normalize reaching out for help.

BOAS: We spoke to one of the panelists, Emma Drake, about her experience on the panel.

EMMA DRAKE: My name is Emma Drake. I’m a junior. I’m studying economics and global health.

BOAS: To start, can you give a rundown of your mental health story?

DRAKE: I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and that was diagnosed in December of my first year at Northwestern. So, I had kind of a rough fall quarter where my health kind of deteriorated rapidly. Long story short, I had a really hard time for a few months. I took a medical leave of absence for winter and spring of my freshman year and came back to Northwestern fall of my sophomore year. Basically, I just presented with a really huge fear of contamination, of unintentionally hurting others and it took a lot of hard work in therapy and medication, exposure response prevention therapy to come back to a place where I could kind of separate the difference between what it means to care about other people without destroying myself in that process.

BOAS: Emma said that she has talked about her mental health story before on the internet, mostly through her personal Instagram, so it wasn’t a huge deal for her to share her story during the panel.

DRAKE: Then also in the process of taking a leave of absence and then being reinstated, you kind of have to tell all your dirty secrets to Northwestern in order to, like, be excused and then to be reallowed back into the space. I think it’s one of those things that with practice gets easier, but at the end of the day, it’s still very personal. There are parts of it that feel embarrassing or shameful or hard to explain, but it’s definitely a rewarding experience that I always felt good about and that I think helps me in my own health, too.

FULLER: Emma joined Active Minds this year in an effort to get more involved in mental health awareness on campus. As a member of the special events planning committee, she heard about the event and thought about being a member of the panel. Then, she submitted an application explaining why she wanted to talk on the panel and was accepted.

BOAS: Even though many colleges have organizations like Active Minds that try to minimize the stigma surrounding mental illness, and many students have struggled with their mental health, the stigma still affects many college students. Researchers from the World Health Organization surveyed first-year college students from eight countries and found that 35% struggled with mental illness.

FULLER: A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin asked college students to take part in the GRE General Test, a standardized exam used for graduate school admission. Half of the tests asked if the participant had a history of mental illness. Students who had to disclose their history of mental illness didn’t do as well on the exam. Researchers concluded the results are linked to students using their energy to repressing the idea that they are members of a stigmatized, stereotyped group instead of using all of one’s brain power on the test itself. Therefore, reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness is important, especially at a school like Northwestern with lots of stressors, academically and otherwise.

DRAKE: I can only speak to my experience; sharing can be really helpful and it can be really empowering. And it can be like a huge part of recovery. Once I’ve had the ability to recover in some ways, I like want people to know the hard work I’m doing and on top of that, absolutely, I would want to advocate for other people. Especially because OCD is not particularly well-known and can be hard to talk about.

BOAS: Would you say you were excited to share your story? What were the emotions going through your head before the panel?

DRAKE: It was kind of interesting. I honestly didn’t think too much about it. And then I kind of got there and I was seeing what the other panelists were doing, reviewing their notes and whatever. I kind of joked, I was like, “I guess I should think about what I’m going to say here.” But no, I was definitely excited. And I mean, whenever you’re talking in front of a large group of people, especially about something that is so sensitive to people and has a huge effect on people’s lives, you want to be careful to articulate what you’re saying and you don’t want to say something that you don’t mean or generalize to larger populations than myself. I think all of those things run through your mind and it makes you a little bit more alert than you would be in a casual conversation. I was pleased that people showed up. And I felt grateful that I had the platform to share my story.

BOAS: What was it like hearing the other panelists talk about their stories? Were you familiar with their stories beforehand?

DRAKE: Yeah, I actually really was not. I don’t think I was familiar with any of them, so that was really interesting. I thought it was great because there was a pretty diverse range of experiences on the panel in terms of both what we are talking about with regards to mental health and mental illness, but in addition to that, different identities among the panelists and how that intersected with mental health. I thought all the panelists did a really nice job and it was definitely a moving experience to listen to them as it was happening because like I said, I really didn’t know what they were going to say. I think it grounded me in the fact that this was a serious event and it was very much like a quote on quote “brave space” to use some Northwestern jargon. But, yeah, I thought that was really cool to hear what they had to say and to feel their bravery.

BOAS: What was your biggest takeaway from the panel?

DRAKE: I think that, as always, I’m overwhelmed by what people go through. And I’m overwhelmed by how much support is needed and maybe how that demand is not being met. But in addition to that, I’m always kind of thinking about more effective ways for people to realize when other people need help, because I know when I was struggling, I didn’t have words for it. I didn’t know what was going on, so it was nearly impossible to ask for help and sort of reflected a lot on how my experience could have been different, and how I could have maybe not gone to literally rock bottom. And I don’t know the answer to that. But as always, it’s interesting to think about it and interesting to think about how in this environment, we can support one another and what that looks like.

BOAS: That’s all we have today for Speak Your Mind. I’m Sammi Boas,

FULLER: And I’m Haley Fuller. Thanks for listening!