I started writing about my struggles with depression on my personal blog in 2007, but it was several more years before I outed myself to the student affairs community. I can still remember the churning in my stomach and the cold sweat I broke into after hitting “publish” on my post. I can remember the overwhelmingly positive response I got from those who commented, shared, or emailed me privately to thank me for the post. I also remember the silence from people I had hoped and thought would respond – in a way, that spoke louder than the comments from those that supported me. Someone recently asked me if I regretted posting so publicly about my depression. I know why they asked that, but it makes me sad that there was a reason for them to ask. I know there are many people – even people reading this – that think I should be ashamed of my depression, that it makes me weak, that it makes me less than them. I used to believe that myself.
But here’s the thing – my depression does not define me. I am more than my illness. And I am angry.
I am angry that we let mental illness define who a person is – and we view them and treat them as an other – as different from us. I am angry that there are people who believe that one person should be able to talk about their physical ailments but think I should shut up about my mental illness. I am angry that we can talk 365 days a year about being fit and physically healthy, but we only get one month for mental health. It is not enough for us to say that we support those with mental illness – we must show it. We must make this an ongoing discussion – not just on Twitter, not just on blogs, but in our offices, in our families, in our lives. We must acknowledge the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and then we must stomp on it. Over the next month, several brave individuals will be sharing their stories on this blog. I hope that you will read them with kindness and compassion. I hope you will not fear asking these individuals how they are doing in the future. I hope you will not be afraid of them or feel sorry for them. And then, then I hope that you will use this month as an impetus to educate yourself and those around you on the realities of mental illness. I believe it is time for us to acknowledge this as more than a one-time topic, time for us to acknowledge this as a part of all of our lives. Are you ready to take steps to learn about and educate others on mental health?
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
1. Organize a “lunch & learn” and share this blog post to start the conversation on your campus.
2. Work with your health services or counseling office to host a mental health screening or other educational event.
3. The hashtag for Mental Health Month is #mhmonth2014 – or use #sacommits if you want to talk about mental health in student affairs on Twitter; check out the Mental Health Month Facebook page; or join the American College Counseling Association on LinkedIn. If you’re not on social media, send an email to three people and ask for their thoughts.
Join me this month – this lifetime – in stomping out the stigma of mental illness.
Kristen Abell is a web developer at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has been in student affairs in a variety of positions for about 15 years. She has been fighting (and winning) a battle with depression for most of her life. Connect with her at @Kristen_Abell on Twitter or read her blog at kristen-abell.com.
To read more about “Committed,” a series focusing on sharing stories and continuing the conversation about Mental Health in Student Affairs, check out this post. Follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #SAcommits. Thanks for reading and supporting your colleagues!