Tonight I am participating in a “Speak Your Mind” (SYM) Panel for my college’s chapter of Active Minds. SYM Panels have become a major part of my life in the past two years. These were created by a former president of our chapter at Ithaca College, and they are truly inspirational. On these panels, a few panelists, all of whom are students at our school, speak for about 5 minutes about their personal experiences with mental illness. Afterwards, we open up a discussion, during which the audience can ask questions. There is a huge variety in what these stories are about. Many are about anxiety, depression and/or self-injury, but many also go into struggles with less common disorders such as Post-traumatic Stress, Borderline, Bipolar, Dependent Personality, Psychotic and Eating Disorders. The stories that students tell are truly moving.
We typically hold these panels in classrooms or on dorm floors, often targeting freshmen or psychology students. But lately we have been branching out and doing panels for writing seminars, science classes, and other groups.
I did my first SYM Panel in the fall of my junior year, and I talked about my struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide. The response was almost overwhelming. The small group of students who had listened were so warm and caring and insightful. Not only were they kind about my story, but many of them could relate. I found that after panels it is not uncommon for people to go up to individual panelists and hold a conversation about how the story related to their own life. The audience members often say things like, “You all look so normal!” or “I’ve always seen you around campus, and I had no idea what you were going through.” And I think this is one of the really powerful aspects of these panels: it makes people look around and realize that you never know who is going through what at any given point. Just because someone is smiling and seems to be in a good mood does not mean that they are not having serious struggles in their life at the time.
I also realized, as soon as I participated in my first panel, that an amazing connection forms between the panelists themselves. You suddenly know the people next to you very, very well and instantly become close. Currently, most of my best friends are fellow SYM panelists. We love each other unconditionally, and we have become a family.
The reason we do these panels is to try and “change the conversation about mental health.” There is still an unfortunately large stigma against mental illness in our society, and it sometimes prevents people from getting the help they need. Some people experience shame and embarrassment. So as panelists we step forward and say things like, “I’m a student. I take my school work seriously. I watch movies and have a good time with my friends. I love my family. I play with my dogs. My dog is starting to get older and having a hard time eating so I’m consider using wet food to help him. I am leading a successful and ‘normal’ life, and I have a mental illness.” Not all of that is true about all of the panelists—of course we are all individuals. But the idea is that we are talking about these problems, and so can other people. We are not ashamed. We get the help we need and we accept that this is who we are, and we do what we can to be happy.
I became so invested in SYM Panels that I joined the executive board of our Active Minds chapter as SYM Panel Co-chair last year. I helped organize, plan and moderate the panels. It became the thing in my life that I was most passionate about. And my co-chair and I expanded the panels, doing significantly more than had ever been done in one semester before. We were reaching more people than ever and it felt great.
Tonight is the first public SYM panel that we have ever done. My co-chair and I have been vigorously planning this event for about a month now, trying to make sure everything will fall into place. There will actually be four separate panels within the event, each with their own theme: Depression, “Abnormal” Psychology, Trauma and Self-injury and Suicide. I will be speaking on the “Abnormal” Psychology (about my Dependent Personality Disorder) as well as on the Self-injury and Suicide panel.
I am really excited, but also nervous. Anyone can come to this panel. There might be people who know me and don’t know my story. Friends, even. It’s a little scary. While I am very open about my experiences, there is still always a little anxiety about it. I have lost friends in the past who were too afraid of my issues to stay close to me, and it really hurt. We made promotional posters for this event, featuring some of the panelists. (Like this one of me). And we put these pictures on facebook, in our group for the event, tagging each other in the photos. One of my fellow panelists and I had a discussion about whether or not we were ok with this. There are people who are friends with us on facebook who have NO idea that we deal with mental illness. We have family who don’t necessarily want us flaunting our stories. My friend and I considered untagging ourselves. But we eventually decided not to.
SYM Panels are a really important part of our lives. We stand proudly for the cause and decreasing the stigma that surrounds mental illness is crucial. The people who would judge us for speaking about our mental illness are the people we are trying to change, so why not show them who we really are? It feels like we are taking a risk by putting those posters on facebook and tacking them up all around the school, advertising for the event. But it shouldn’t!
This is something that is a little scary to me, but I feel so passionately about that I am willing to overcome that fear. I never thought I would stand up for anything so strongly. I’m normally passive and I won’t do anything if it could possibly offend or upset anyone. Or even if it could cause someone to offend or upset me. But this is different. Something needs to change, and I know that. People need to know that just because they suffer from mental illness does not mean that they are anything less than everybody else.
Is there anything that you feel so passionately about that you would stand up for it, with your head high, even knowing that you might be looked down on for it or criticized? Have you ever felt prejudiced against and done something to try and change it? I think a true leader will be able to follow her heart and do what she believes is right, even if a lot of people don’t agree. We are all capable of changing the world; we just have to put ourselves out there sometimes, and possibly do some things that we are not completely comfortable with.
What do you stand for?
LeadHer™ Intern, Campus Calm™
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