“Stop Hiding, Start Talking” campaign culminates in panel in Rollins Chapel

by Katie Rafter | 11/5/15 9:17pm

11.6.15.news_.panel_Paula.MendozaUSE
An a cappella group performs at the Student Assembly event on Thursday.
by Paula Mendoza / Paula Mendoza/The Dartmouth

Six panelists discussed mental health issues at what was a culminating event for Student Assembly’s “Stop Hiding, Start Talking” initiative on Thursday night in Rollins Chapel. Topics ranged from struggles with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

The panel began with opening remarks from Student Assembly health and wellness chair Speight Carr ’16, who spoke about how critical of an issue mental health is at the College and campuses nationwide.

Carr said mental health is a stigmatized and taboo topic. Without talking about the issue, however, we cannot normalize it, so it is important to start a dialogue that moves beyond the stigma, he said.

Director of Counseling and Human Development Heather Earle said representations of mental health in the media prevent people from wanting to discuss it. Panels like this are important in creating safe spaces for discussion and education on campus, she said.

“I think it’s really great when students speak about mental health issues and really break the silence and put a different face to it,” Earle said.

Writing professor Jennifer Sargent spoke about her own struggles with mental health throughout her life and career, emphasizing the importance of self-recognition and reaching out to the available resources.

Sargent said many faculty, staff and administrators are dealing with the same issues as students, which makes them more understanding.

In total, six panelists spoke about their experiences with mental illness, both at the College and before they arrived.

Alex Libre ’16 discussed his diagnosis with bipolar disorder and his experience with psychiatric medication. He said the medication kept him in a constant state of mild depression until he weaned himself off of it.

“Mental health is so much more complicated than the treatment of disease X with medication Y,” he said.

Deidra Nesbeth ’16, said she has dealt with an unhealthy relationship with food for years, yet initially did not accept her symptoms.

“The psych major in me knew I didn’t fit perfectly into any diagnostic boxes, and I told myself I was okay,” she said.

Eventually, she opened up to her friends, realizing that her eating disorder was taking control of her life.

“Honesty was the only way that I could get the help that I needed,” she said.

One sophomore panelist, Andi Norman ’18, spoke of her struggle with depression and anxiety and balancing academics and playing varsity basketball before reaching out to a counselor at Dick’s House.

Jonathan Diakanwa ’16 said growing up in a culture where mental illness was not discussed bred a fear of speaking about weakness. He said the difficulty for him is not in the feeling of anxiety, but in not being able to explain it. He advised students to start small when opening up if they find it difficult.

Xander Johnson ’18 said his issues with anxiety began when he started high school and have continued through his time at the College. He said he struggled with his own expectations for his future as well as the expectations of others, especially in relation to coming to terms with his sexuality.

A senior female panelist, who asked to remain anonymous due to the personal nature of the issue, spoke about her struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, saying that a big problem with the discussion of mental illness is misinformation. She said she hopes that by breaking her own silence on the subject, she will contribute to breaking society’s silence on the subject.

“I believe the more people that speak up, the more people will have the courage to do so in the future,” she said.

Student Assembly president Frank Cunningham ’16 followed the panelists with his own remarks, speaking about how students should foster compassion by changing the way they view each other and participating in the conversation.

“I hide my depression behind my smile,” he said, adding that students need to step out from behind their masks and be honest about what they are hiding and why.

On Thursday, the Assembly encouraged students to wear stickers that said “I hide my___ behind my ___,” filling in the blanks to represent their own circumstances.

Carly Kuperschmid ’16 offered a reflection after the panelists spoke, recognizing their bravery and honesty in coming forward. She said we all have something we dislike about ourselves, and emphasized the importance of support.

“What matters is what you’re going to do about it and how you’re going to respond to it,” she said.

The event culminated in a candlelight vigil on the Green, commemorating college students who have died by suicide.

Cunningham said in an interview that he hoped Thursday would be a day where students recognize that the Assembly is seriously addressing the issue of mental health on campus. He said Student Assembly’s various mental health initiatives this term have been a success.

“The ‘Stop Hiding, Start Talking’ campaign did exactly what it was supposed to do, it got people talking,” he said.

Some people were uncomfortable with the name of the initiative, he said. He saw this discomfort, however, as representative of how students at the College are uncomfortable with talking about mental health.

The Assembly hosted three discussions open to campus over the course of the last few weeks, as part of a discussion series named “Breaking the Mask through Meaningful Dialogue.” The first discussion was called “Coping with the Rigors of College Life,” followed by “Sexuality, Identity and Mental Health” and finally “Social Anxiety and Substance Abuse.”

Cunningham said that he wished attendance had been higher for these discussions, but said he measures success on the impact on students not on attendance.

“The way that I would measure success is having students reach out to me,” he said.

Students have told him they felt better and more at ease leaving the discussions, he said.

“Stop Hiding, Start Talking” was the largest budget allocation for Student Assembly this term, Cunningham said.

Carr said he was impressed by the level of dialogue achieved at the three discussions before Thursday, and he said they were meaningful for the people who were in attendance.

“As long as these words can affect at least one person in the room, I think we’ve done our job,” he said.

Awareness of the campaign advanced more than last year. He said a similar panel last year was a success, and that he hoped to replicate this with this term’s panel.

The mental health campaign will continue throughout next term, he said. The Assembly has plans to collaborate with different schools and enhance faculty engagement with the discussions, through more awareness campaigns.

“Hopefully we’ll get to a more concrete place where we can start writing policies and make campus better,” Carr said.