Active Minds addresses mental health through student perspectives

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The Occidental chapter of Active Minds hosted “Oxy From the Inside” Thursday in a packed Choi Auditorium, where 10 students shared their experiences with mental health in an effort to destigmatize the issue.

Active Minds is a national organization that promotes mental health awareness, which students formed a Occidental colony of in 2013.

Active Minds President Aaron Vogel (senior) said that the idea behind a peer-sharing event sprouted from a peer-narrative workshop, an event last March in which students shared their experiences with mental health within the confines of an Active Minds meeting.

“Being open and sharing was a logical next step in reducing stigma. That was the idea behind this … everybody left that session feeling very vulnerable, but an empowered vulnerability,” Vogel said. “And so we felt like we could do something like this on a much larger scale the following school year.”

Elizabeth Seibert (sophomore) is a member of Active Minds who spearheaded the creation of the event’s committee. She was not present at Thursday’s event because she was attending a philosophy conference in Spokane, Wash. She did, however, prepare a short YouTube video to introduce the event and watched all 10 presentations over video chat.

“In my experiences at Oxy, I’ve noticed we have no problem moaning about how little sleep we’ve gotten or how much partying we’ve done—but when it comes to the tough stuff, the dark stuff and the stuff we really need to talk about the most, we’re silent,” Seibert said in the video.

The student presentations covered a wide range of issues, from depression and schizophrenia to eating disorders.

Student presenter Taylor Durham (senior) shared her experiences with herpes. She contracted the disease from a longtime partner who had contracted it previously***. Her diagnosis took a toll on her mental health in the form of problems with substance abuse.

“I felt compelled to share my story because, when my physical health became an issue and my mental health because of that, all I wanted was somebody else who had been there to help me get through the same things … and I couldn’t find a single other person who’d been through that,” Durham said. “Now I know that if I talk about it, there is one person that people can go to.”

Another presenter was Savannah Eason (first-year), who talked about her experiences with depression.

“Sharing my story helped to normalize mental illness because I’m just like everybody else,” Eason said. “I also liked telling my story because it’s such a big part of my life, and I like people just knowing that it happened to me because it’s something I think about pretty regularly.”

Eight out of 10 presenters were women and two were students of color. The audience was predominantly white and female as well. Alexis Morse (first-year), a student that attended the event, attributed this inequality to a particular stigma against mental illness in men.

“Many young boys are taught that they shouldn’t have feelings and shouldn’t talk about their feelings … It’s hard to break the silence when there’s no precedent of breaking the silence,” Morse said. “But I feel like Active Minds, just by setting that precedent, is opening this up to break down that gender divide.”

Vogel said that he attempted to overcome the lack of racial diversity by contacting various cultural clubs asking if anyone would be willing to present. He added that the overwhelming number of students receiving counseling at Emmons are white, according to a poll by Active Minds in the fall of 2013.

Damian Mendieta* (senior), one of the three students of color who presented**, attributed the inequality to a tendency in brown communities to struggle privately with mental illness.

“I think a lot of it is that we’re raised to be tough and whatever problems you face, you kind of have to ignore them,” Mendieta said. “That’s what our guardians have taught us our whole lives, that’s what we’ve seen them do—whatever problems they have, all of the difficulties they told us they had growing up, they put them on their shoulders and they just kept going.”

Still, Vogel hopes that events like “Oxy from the Inside” will encourage more students to speak openly.

“I hope, having done this, more men, more students of color will feel inclined to share their stories, because of course they have them,” Vogel said.

Students in attendance, like Julia Kingsley (senior), noted the value in hearing how fellow students coped with issues of mental health.

“I thought it was really enlightening and relatable. It’s nice to realize that everyone struggles with something behind our activities and academics at school,” Kingsley said via email.

Samuel Wylie (senior) said the bravery of the speakers was impossible to ignore, and that it made him more comfortable opening up about his mental health to his fellow students.

“I felt a connection to my peers that I have rarely felt during my time at Oxy. I will never understand the experiences of some of the speakers, but I can understand feelings of pain, of loneliness, and resignation,” Wylie said via email. “For me, the event was an opportunity for students to educate themselves, listen to their peers, and connect with each other on a basic emotional level.”

*Mendieta is a staff member of The Occidental Weekly.

**A previous version of this article misstated the number of speakers of color at the event. There were three, not two.  

***The Weekly would like to apologize for previously suggesting that Durham’s partner contracted an STI through unprotected sex. Durham wrote in that she does not know the source of her partner’s herpes and did not speak about it at the event.