Erasing the stigma of mental illness

by Marion Givhan

Staff Writer

On November 4, people filled the Wick living room, spread out on cushions on the floor, squeezed onto couches, and settled into folding chairs, all there for the weekly Tuesday Aux Talk. This talk focused on beginning the discussion on the issue of mental illness. The need for awareness and understanding is great, as 12% of the world’s population struggles with depression, one in four Americans have some experience with mental illness in their lifetime, and suicide is the second highest cause of death of 24-35 year olds. The leaders of the Aux Talk, Elise Anderson (C’16) and Christina Rutland (C’17), stated these statistics to preface the meeting. One goal they had in mind was to start a dialogue about mental illness on campus. “Silence perpetuates the stigma, so by talking about our shared experiences, we can start to combat it,” said Anderson. They also expressed the desire to create a supporting community at Sewanee for those struggling with mental illness.

“We want everyone to know that there are people who care, who will listen, who will support you,” said Rutland. And there are. Within the warm safety of the living room, people felt comfortable enough to reveal the fears and struggles of their experiences, with the knowledge that the others there would listen and offer encouragement. At times, the group even started clapping for the people who spoke. “One of the most powerful forces of change is realizing that we’re not alone,” said Anderson. That message was clear from the beginning of the discussion. Rutland and Anderson described their own connections to mental illness, and when the latter revealed that she’d been taking Lexapro since she was fourteen, someone shouted, “Hey! I’m on Lexapro too!” “It was a cathartic moment of laughter and joy,” said Anderson, “with everyone in the room realizing that this was a safe place to talk about cultural taboos.”

Anderson and Rutland played off each other’s strengths while preparing for the talk. They worked together to think of questions that pertained specifically to the challenges of college students, the concept of identity, and exploring the root of negative connotations. These questions led the discussion, but for the most part, people bounced off each other and made connections to the questions without much guidance. “The meeting went according to plan, the best it possibly could have,” said Rutland. The awkward silence she and Anderson prepared for never happened. Toward the end of the meeting, after an hour of productive sharing and supporting, someone requested a support group that could meet consistently, or even a Facebook thread where people could offer encouragement and a safe place to talk. Rutland and Anderson both agreed that a group would benefit the community, and are now putting together a weekly mental health support group. Also expect more events “geared toward activism and tangible change on campus,” said Anderson.

“We’re going to make it a big talk on campus,” said Rutland.