“We may not all have mental illness, but we all have mental health.”
Ithaca College’s chapter of Active Minds, the national nonprofit that seeks to raise mental health awareness among college students, embodies this belief of Alison Malmon, founder of the national Active Minds organization. The group will put this idea into practice through an Open Speak Your Mind Panel from 6–8 p.m. April 23 in Textor Hall, room 103. The event is open to the campus and Ithaca communities and aims to provide attendees with an opportunity to hear personal testimonies from Ithaca College students and have an open discussion about the full spectrum of mental health.
The discussion is not only for eight trained student panelists to share stories of how mental illness has affected their lives, but for students and community members to ask questions of the panelists freely about these issues ranging from diagnosed illness to overall health.
The goal, sophomore Shannon Rebholz, member of IC Active Minds, said, is to help reduce the stigma that stifles both the language and advocacy of mental health education.
“Words like ‘crazy’ when referring to someone who has a mental illness — there’s a place where these words start to become inappropriate,” Rebholz said. “Our goal is for everyone to be comfortable talking about mental health and mental illness. That way, the people who are diagnosed or suffering from symptoms of a mental illness won’t be afraid to seek help.”
Rebholz, along with sophomore Amelia Erikson, have been elected to be SYM panel co-chairs next semester, and their training begins with planning the third annual Open SYM Panel.
Traditionally, SYM panels involve about four panelists speaking in freshman seminars, as well as psychology courses, whereas next week’s open panel will allow students who are not in these spaces to attend a SYM panel, Erikson said.
“We want to really open up the discussion for those people who haven’t experienced what a SYM panel is,” she said. “We want to talk to them about mental health.”
Senior Andrea Champlin, Active Minds co-president, said the stigma surrounding mental illness manifests in microaggressions that belittle mental illnesses, such as joking about killing oneself over an assignment. She said mental illness is a physical condition that needs professional help, like any other sickness.
“Mental illness is an illness — you wouldn’t tell somebody to just snap out of having cancer,” she said.
The panelists go through training in order to prepare their testimonies in a non-triggering, organized way, Erikson said. During training, SYM Panel chairs offer their advice on how to make the stories flow while remaining concise, she said. Eight students will share personal stories in speeches of four to five minutes, with Q&A sessions in between two groups of four testimonies.
Erikson said the moderators and panelists try to initiate a comfortable flow of discussion during the Q&A portion, and they will distribute index cards for students to write down questions they are timid about asking out loud, for the panelists to then read and answer.
“What is important to know is that we are open books and we will basically answer any questions,” she said.
Rebholz, whose mother coped with substance abuse, said it’s important to be able to talk openly about her experiences growing up around her mother’s past illness.
“Up until I saw SYM panels, it wasn’t anything I thought was OK to talk about,” she said.
Though students may feel hesitant to ask questions, Rebholz said, the panelists establish a personal connection through their storytelling to help relieve some anxiety.
“People get a little nervous to ask the personal questions,” she said. “Telling the story in itself, because they are so personal and deep, helps break the walls.”
Both Rebholz and Champlin said they have felt a sense of camaraderie during past SYM panels when these barriers are torn down.
“One or two brave souls will be the first one to ask a question, and then the floodgates open,” Champlin said. “You can almost see the kind of camaraderie that it’s building, because it’s almost like you can see the realization dawn on people that, ‘Oh, I can talk about this … I’m not going to get judged.’”
Rebholz said one of their goals for next year is to increase mental health advocacy by making the open panel occur once a semester rather than once a year.
“The possibilities really are endless,” she said. “We want this to be something that people look forward to.”
Anyone interested in joining IC Active Minds should attend their meetings at 12:10 p.m. on Thursdays in Williams Hall, room 211.