If last year was the year of York, this year campus is going to be all about mental health. Mental health issues are a part of all college students’ lives, whether it be an intimate component affecting you firsthand, or impacting a friend or someone you care about. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, more than 40 percent of college students have felt more than an average amount of stress within the past 12 months. Here at BC, this statistic is certainly appropriate. On a campus filled of students pursuing an image of perfection, it is safe to say nearly all of us have experienced some form of stress or another.
But why don’t we talk about it? Why is stress a burden we tuck away into our Longchamp bags or hide underneath our sweatshirt folds? Problems don’t get solved when we pretend they’re not there. And statistically, mental health issues are undisputedly “there.”
Enter BC junior, an applied psych and human development major, Cassidy Gallegos. If her name sounds familiar, it should. Cassidy is working to change the way we talk about and address mental health issues on campus. As one of the Co-Presidents of Boston College’s To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) chapter, and as a well-spoken and determined beacon of hope, Cassidy is taking on mental illness by storm. Eager to get involved in the mental health movement, I met up with the humble hero early yesterday morning to talk about what’s been going on and, more excitingly, what is to come.
Hi Cassidy. So tell me, what is it that’s been driving you to redefine mental health awareness and initiative on campus?
The lack of conversation about mental health is definitely what’s driving me. So many people in my own personal life, on social media and even in the news are silently struggling with inner demons controlling their lives. Despite this huge amount of people affected by mental health issues, so many people don’t feel comfortable talking about it. It’s understandable to not want to talk about it with everyone, but this is an issue that needs to be treated on the same level as physical illness—it needs to be ok to talk about because it affects everyone on some level. I like to compare it to the idea of how people act if they have a physical illness or injury, a broken arm. With an injured arm people aren’t afraid to say, “I can’t carry my books, will you help me? Can you bring me to the doctor for help?” But when people have the illness or injury in their brain—and that’s what mental illness is—people aren’t comfortable saying they need help, that they can’t go forward today, and when they do, people don’t know how to respond to that. This is not a BC thing, it’s a society thing, and that makes it that much harder. Maybe not everyone wants to tell every person they meet their story—and that’s a good thing, not everyone needs to know everything—but people should be able to stop and say to their friends or professors, “Hey, I’m having a really hard time getting though the day today, I don’t know if I can do that,” or even just be able to tell others when you are feeling overwhelmed. That’s what I want to see change on campus.
How are you going about doing that?
This is not a one-man show! There’s no way I would be able to do this on my own. It’s very cool to be recognized as a spokesperson but so many people have come up to me saying how much they want BC to focus on mental health issues. UGBC created the Mental Health Initiative, where goal A is to increase dialogue about mental health on campus, and goal B is to decrease the stigma, while connecting students to resources, and creating a campus that supports students so everyone feels safe and comfortable. It’s a year-long campaign, but the important part is that we don’t want it to be a UGBC thing, and I don’t want it to be a TWLOHA thing. We created a campaign and blog called Be Conscious this summer and it covers all of the mental health things happening on campus, which we have put on a website, and are connecting all of the events under a logo. We want people to see this logo and recognize it, much like the “I am an ally” sticker or the “Support Love” stickers GLC has, so that people will see it and know that this is a good person for me to go talk to about this. Last week TWLOHA did a lot about statistics and awareness, but in terms of Be Conscious, we have more interactive events coming up that I am very excited about.
Can you give us an idea of what those events will be like?
Kevin Breel is coming to BC! He recently did a TED talk called Confessions of a Depressed Comic, where he talked about his experience with depression, and the one night where it all kind of cumulated. He talks about how he thought about dying by suicide, and then his decision not to, as well as the stigma and 2 different lives he felt he has been living as a result. This focus on stigma and the dualism is something we need to talk about; everyone is affected or knows about it so it would be great if we could all have dialogues about it. He’s coming on November 5, and he’s our age so he is super approachable, and great at public speaking.
UGBC also has a What I Be campaign, coming up in October, where photographer Steve Rosenfield will come to campus for a week to give presentations on his project, and take pictures on campus and then display those portraits. He has a “building security through insecurities” series where he takes portraits of people after he talks with them about what they consider to be their insecurity, and then he incorporates that into his photographs by writing on the body things like, “I am not my eating disorder,” or whatever topic the subject names. Also to be noted is that the problems or themes are not specifically depression or eating disorder-related; it’s really anything that affects daily function—it doesn’t have to be specific mental illness.
TWLOHA is also experimenting with different methods we can use to start conversations on campus like the video series you guys talked to Sarah about. People like videos, everyone’s on social media, and it’s nice because it is not everyone in a room where people are worried about others watching how they respond. With videos, people can watch it on their own and digest it. I think it’s great that the people in the videos have gotten to a point in their story where they are able to share and wont be triggered to do that. Hopefully, this series will be a semester—if not year long—project.
Where would you say BC is right now in terms of where you’d like to see our campus end up? How does our student body see mental illness, and more importantly, how do we respond to it?
I am a student who is passionate about this; it’s not like I have many years of experience or am a professional, so how I view things is based on what I saw or what I personally experienced. From that perspective, I just started thinking: Hey, we could do something about this; it was never about saying anything is wrong with the counseling service, or BC specifically. The number of people they see is high, so that means people are seeking help, but there is an obvious disconnect between those services and people feeling comfortable seeking them.
Since I’m on the side that’s advocating mental health everyday, I see what mental health awareness is on campus differently than the average passerby. So while I might think we’re doing a great job publicizing, so and so might have never seen anything about it.
I don’t know how quickly this can happen, but my goal—my drive—is that when people hear the term “mental illness,” they won’t be made scared or back away from it. It can be scary and it can be hard, but I don’t want a BC-lookaway for mental health. If you and I are sitting down talking about depression, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to go tell 10 people your story to publicize it. No, I want you to feel like you can connect, and know that you have people here who want to listen and who can help. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.
I should also mention that this is not just about the students, but parents, friends, maybe professors, maybe older mentors, everyone. Just because these people are adults, doesn’t mean that they know how to talk about mental illness appropriately, or know the right language to use. Those people are just as in the dark as others. That’s why I would love to have some sort of mandatory training for everyone on campus, like a QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer), which is CPR but for suicide prevention. It teaches people how to ask someone directly and in a respectful way if they are thinking about suicide or are feeling down, and then how to respond if a friend says they can’t go on. Then you need to refer them to help, so QPR covers what you need to do in that instant. I got training in it and I think it is so helpful.
How can we all connect to this mission of yours? How is mental health important to everyone?
This whole idea of “mental illness doesn’t affect me,” is crazy because the reality is that 2/3 of people that struggle with depression don’t seek help, so you might not even know that someone you love or care about has a mental illness. It goes back to the stigma that you are inferior, and the accompanying shame or self-doubt that you can’t talk about mental illness. People think that if they, individually, are not dealing with it, there’s nothing they can do, but that all comes from the stigma. There are so many more people that we know or want to know that are struggling with this: suicide, depression, even stress. It’s important to know that this affects us all because people need to educate themselves; if we don’t know what we’re talking about, we’re just perpetuating stigma. Everyone should care about mental health issues and about what it means to struggle, what it means to help, and the language we need to be using. Like why it is wrong to say “committed suicide” as opposed to “died by suicide,” or learning to substitute “self-injured” for “he cut himself.” Mental health is such a big focus point right now on campus that if we can educate each other and learn about treatment, it can help a lot.
I’m sure you’ve learned a lot from taking all of this on. Is there anything of particular interest that the rest of us here on campus can benefit from?
Of course. One thing I really realized through doing this is the importance of self-care. We’re creating a community for other people, for everyone, but at the core of that, if you as an individual are not taking care of yourself, the community isn’t going to be strong. This is advice for me just as it is for every college student: Why are you doing what you’re doing? Are you passionate about it? Is it for a resume? If it is, that’s awesome, just as long as you’re asking yourself do you feel like you can sustain? If I don’t check myself, I really will be rundown and overextended, we all would be, and some of us are. Take 10 minutes for yourself and think, “Do I really need to do this?” Eat a good meal, take a hot shower, walk around the res; anything nourishing for your body or mind goes such a long way.