By Carmen Macias
In college, Tuesday nights were sacred to me.
My overinvolved schedule and anxiety diagnosis caused me to be stressed constantly. Every day brought on a new wave of deadlines, papers, and assignments. On top of schoolwork, there was the pressure to maintain relationships, too. I was also encouraged to network and look for potential future opportunities. Because I was a student athlete, early morning practices and weekend competitions took much of my energy. All of these worries incessantly interrupted my day.
However, Tuesday nights mollified the tension.
Active Minds is a national organization that promotes mental health and works to destigmatize mental illnesses on college campuses. I encountered the organization when I was a freshman at Rockhurst University. Each year, our Active Minds chapter brings in a nationally recognized speaker. My teachers offered extra credit to anyone who attended the event, so I was sold.
That evening, the speaker shared how he lost his best friend to suicide. It was discovered that his friend lost a battle to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The speaker was devastated because he too struggled with OCD. He realized that if only they had discussed their hardships together maybe things would have been different. The story of the speaker touched me. In addition to the immense sorrow I felt for the speaker, I also felt shock and amazement that someone would share such a moving story with so many strangers.
Before Active Minds, I had no idea what taking care of my mental health meant. I thought it was not something to discuss with strangers or in public. I was aware I struggled with anxiety, but I had no idea anyone else did either. When I went to my first Active Minds meeting, I met many other students who had the same struggles as myself. I still was not comfortable sharing my experience with mental illness, so I listened to everyone around me. I heard phrases for the first time that would soon become mantras for me:
Not everyone has a mental illness, but everyone has mental health.
You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else – You cannot pour from an empty cup.
You do not have to have a mental illness to go to counseling/therapy.
You are not alone in your struggle.
I am here for you.
The world needs you here.
After that initial meeting, it did not matter what I was going through during any given week. On Tuesday at 9pm, I knew that I was going to be heard at the Active Minds weekly meetings. Active Minds gave me a safe place to grow. I learned how to allow myself to let go of some of the insecurities I had, and continue to have, surrounding mental health. I was able to drop the toxic mindset that if I asked for help or went to therapy, then I had failed. Active Minds let me be kind to myself for the first time in years. I was welcomed into this community of nonjudgement and love. In this organization, I was listened to and felt heard. The leaders cared about me because they knew what it was like to struggle. I was encouraged to seek counseling without feeling as though I was less than because of it. I felt liberated. I wanted to shout to the world what I had discovered with Active Minds. So, I did.
After becoming a general member, I applied for a position on the Executive Board. My Junior year, I served as the Public Relations Co-Chair. In this position, I connected the student body to our mission. I managed the social media pages, made flyers, painted banners, etc. The best part about this position was that I was able to reach out to members of the Rockhurst Community and ask them to share a snippet of their mental health journey through our social media campaign called #MindsofRU. Students, faculty, and staff members shared their thoughts on managing mental health, self-care tips, a piece of their mental health journey, and other mental health related topics. I loved this role so much because I was able to connect someone’s story to a wider audience. Eventually, I decided to step into a bigger role of President.
When joining any organization, it is important to realize that you are now an extension of that group. You will always be associated with that organization no matter what you do. I quickly learned that when I took on this position. Because Active Minds aims to create a safe place for anyone during our meetings, people associate the executive members as safe people to turn to as well. Once I filled the role as president of the mental health organization on campus, members of the Rockhurst community felt safe approaching me with their struggles both inside and outside of meetings. I was often approached at the dining hall, in study areas, and even at bars. People trusted me with their feelings and knew I would listen to what they had to say. I always did my best to make sure they felt heard and to involve a mental health professional if needed. I did much more in my position than listen to the struggles of others and advocate for the importance of mental health, but I think that that was the most important work I did.
I journeyed from thinking that speaking about mental illnesses was scandalous to preaching how necessary it is to normalize help-seeking behavior. I was able to make this transformation because of the community Active Minds gave me. I know that the stigma surrounding mental health is still prevalent. However, I think the younger generations are better at speaking out. I worry more for the teachers and faculty members in educational institutions. Is there anyone encouraging teachers to seek therapy? Who is telling educators that they cannot pour from an empty cup? Where is the safe space for faculty members to discuss their struggles without judgement and the feeling of inferiority? Active Minds helped me understand myself and others better. Educators also need mental health advocates. Where are they?
The first step to normalize mental health conversations is creating a community that prioritizes mental health. I believe high schools across the country should look into establishing an Active Minds chapter at their school. High schoolers can utilize Active Minds to learn about the importance of taking care of themselves while also advocating to other students. Every chapter is required to have a faculty advisor. This advisor can be the branch between the faculty and students. If the student body creates a space for open discussion of mental health, hopefully that can pour into the administration. Together, students and administration can change the culture surrounding mental health.
Opening up about mental health can be scary. Here are a few of my favorite resources concerning mental health!
About the Author
Carmen Macías is a recent graduate from Rockhurst University. She majored in English and Non-profit Leadership with a minor in Psychology. Carmen currently works as the Communications Coordinator at CARES for Learning - a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving children's literacy with an emphasis on social and emotional learning. Carmen is also a member of the 2019-20 Active Minds National Student Advisory Committee. She likes to spend time with her emotional support animal, Giles and break down the stigma surrounding mental illness. Silence Kills So We Speak. You can read more from her at https://www.seeds-learning.com/blog/ .
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