"Stomp Out Stigma" with Active Minds!
Last night Active Minds held an unveiling of their “Stomp Out Stigma” video followed by a panel discussion, which included Anne, Michael Tratner (a professor of English and Film), and Elna Yadin and Alexis Rosenfeld (two psychologists at the Child Study Institute).
The film features students and faculty dancing in silver crowns (silver is the mental health awareness color) to Jay Sean’s “Down” (inspired by the Pink Glove Dance). The second half of the film features members of Active Minds talking about their own experiences with mental illness and stigma (along with appearances from a few faculty members who also speak about issues of mental health at Bryn Mawr). Active Minds’ overall vision for “Stomp Out Stigma” was that it would create a dialogue surrounding mental illness on Bryn Mawr’s campus. By having our dancers wear silver crowns, we were hoping to make these often invisible illnesses visible. At such an intense and academically demanding school, it’s important that we start to talk about mental disabilities and discuss what we can do as a community to make Bryn Mawr a more accommodating place.
The discussion following the film was really interesting and I was happy with all the dialogue occurring between the panelists and the students and professors who attended the event.
Below is a bullet list of some of the things that were discussed:
- Michael’s first reaction to the film was that these types of confessions about mental illnesses (“I have OCD”, “I have depression”, “I have social anxiety disorder”) sounded different than simply saying you have a cold and that it’s disappointing that there seems to be such a difference between the two narratives. Elna responded that this is because of the mystery surrounding mental illness; if people don’t talk about it, it’s scarier. Later in the evening, she talked about “amplifying the normal.” She said that she’s frustrated by the excessive pathologizing that takes place and suggested that variation needs to become the new norm. We need to know that it’s “okay” to have glitches in the brain and that we need to talk about these glitches so that they become just as ordinary and talked about as the common cold.
- Students talked about how the intense pressure at Bryn Mawr to perform academically negatively affects their mental health. One student said that she feels guilty when she sleeps, imagining how those hours could have been spent getting work done, and others talked about how stressed they feel when their friends stay up all night studying. In general, students seemed to feel like if they weren’t being “mawrtyrs”, they were somehow inadequate. Elna suggested that the Honor Code creates too much anxiety among students and some of the other panelists said that Bryn Mawr as a whole should lighten up and become less serious and that this might reduce the pressure students feel.
- Elna also made a really moving comment about happiness (which might relate to Anne’s other independent study on happiness?). She said that we shouldn’t strive to be happy (and that no one who wants to be happy will achieve happiness), but to instead make each day better than the last, the best that it can be. I think this is important for Bryn Mawr students who always seem to be looking for external validation to make them happy (grades, professor feedback, etc.).
- Many mentioned the importance of bottom-up efforts to change the way we think about mental health and mental illness. Active Minds had meet with Paul Grobstein and the Slippery Brains Solidarity last spring and I remember Paul saying that advocacy never works from the top down (which is how Active Minds operates—there’s a national organization with chapters at different colleges and universities), but has to be from the bottom-up. It’s about telling the people that are close to you about what you struggle with. Since our conversation, his advice always stuck with me. Maybe we can only ever change one person at a time, not groups. If people can say, “oh, my friend has OCD”, this gives them an access point to beginning to understand the nature of mental illness. I feel that we need to have these individual narratives to have this bottom-up advocacy that both Paul and other students at the event were speaking about, but at the same time, celebrating the individual can be problematic. We can then easily revert to language that suggests that the individual is flawed, that the individual has something that needs to be overcome or triumphed. How is the structure of society itself the problem (something Anne brought up during the panel)? Or, how might culture itself be the disability? Do we aim to cure the individual or the system? Or is it that the system can only be cured through narratives of the individual?
- Many students mentioned that they feel uncomfortable approaching faculty with issues of mental health (one student even mentioned that to her, professors were a “different species”!). Anne mentioned that we’re all always "passing" to each other, always performing (the academic system in particular, emphasizes performance—students submitting exams and papers and faculty working to get published). I think Anne’s suggestion that faculty be more open about their own struggles with mental disabilities is important. I, myself, have struggled over whether or not to divulge my own disorder to professors and I think if professors mentioned on the first day of the course that students should see them about whatever they might be struggling with (physical and mental disabilities) and maybe narrated a story of their own difficulty during college, that might pave the way for conversation and prevent possible complications or misunderstandings in the future. Because Anne and I are both open about our own struggles, we’ve reached a dimension in our relationship that I’ve never been able to have with another faculty member and I think that it's enhanced my educational experience—it’s helped me learn even more.
- Another student said that it is her hope that one day students will wear shirts around campus that say what disorder/illness they struggle with. She also said that she’d love to see more people dancing on Merion Green in silver crowns. Anne asked her if it’s important that the secret is attached to identity (which stems from the questions posed in my last post), and she said absolutely. She mentioned that she found a secret in Active Minds’ display last year that she really connected with, but was disappointed that she would never be able to find out who had written it and be able to talk to her.
I was really happy with how the event turned out and I hope more discussions like this can continue at Bryn Mawr, not only with those who struggle with mental illnesses themselves, but everyone on campus.