November 4, 2014

GUEST ROOM: You’re Not Alone: Let’s Talk about Mental Health

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By TERESA DANSO-DANQUAH

Cornell has made great strides in prioritizing mental health. One icon of that achievement is the new Gannett expansion slated for 2017, which will more than double the existing size of Gannett and further increase health access for all students. I additionally laud Cornell’s action of signing on to the Jed and Clinton Foundation Health Matters Campus program, a four-year commitment for evaluating, assessing and enhancing mental health resources on college campuses. Aside from these university endeavors, my day-to-day interactions with Gannett and CAPS professionals reassure my belief in the University’s work to meet students’ needs.

In light of this, I want to challenge Cornell’s current student body, staff, faculty and even the alumni in their respective communities: Let the institutional-level changes motivate us to create a truly inclusive social environment that evokes the same importance to mental health. Let mental health be more than a building, but a fundamental priority among all of us.

As an ally of the disability community, I’ve spent my time at Cornell advocating alongside the voices of students of all abilities, each fulfilling the Cornell dream of “any person, any study” in his or her own way. But I am also aware of the stigma that individuals with invisible disabilities face. Many of us endure our path in silence, too afraid to speak and hear the presumed shame from others. So I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not I wanted to share my story. The journey I’ve been on may or may not be similar to that of so many others.

“You’re not alone.”

It’s the phrase often repeated today in regards to people dealing with mental health illnesses and issues. Well intended, the phrase is supposed to convey empathy and understanding, yet over the past year when I’ve heard those words, I felt the opposite. This summer, I decided to return home to focus on my health and receive stronger outpatient treatment while considering a health leave of absence this fall semester. While intellectually knowing this was a beneficial decision, there was still an overwhelming part of me that felt shame for seeking help.

On the day I was leaving campus, I mentioned to a friend briefly that I was returning home for “health reasons,” and she thoughtfully suggested I pass through Willard Straight to view the Faces of Mental Health Exhibit hosted by Cornell Minds Matter. The mission of the exhibit was to speak out and challenge the stigma associated with mental health and encourage others in the community to feel empowered to do the same. Around the walls of the room were two portraits each of about 20 students — one photo represented the person during his or her struggle and the other represented how the students defined themselves.

As I spent time in that room, viewing each portrait and reading each personal story written below, I was amazed at how their words echoed feelings and statements I had made before. Some described not reaching out to health professionals because of the stigmatization of treatment. Others expressed the fear of not fitting society’s stereotype of a person with a mental illness. Further still, some conveyed the ease and yet pain of faking it through each day with a smile planted on his or her face that belies the inner struggle gnawing away underneath. As I went through the exhibit, my eyes started to tear up as each of these photos and words resonated with me. In the midst of that room, surrounded by my fellow Cornellians, I realized that not only was putting my health first a positive decision, but also that I am truly not alone on this campus.

Now back on campus this semester, it has been a hard road of starting to open up to people, but I have at least one person in all facets of my life that I can truly trust as a confidant and friend. Our relationships are not always perfect, but, when I feel comfortable, I know I can reach out to them. And this can be on every level. I started with my health advisor, and then it led to my academic advisor, and soon that lead to my work supervisor. Eventually, I realized how beneficial it was to have a point person in each area of my life, so I began to reach out in other areas — a person to help me with the job process, a friend for social support, a family member confidante and a person in one of the clubs in which I am involved. Creating this support network is effective not only for health reasons, but for the complexities of our lives — it’s simply a strategic way to live.

There are so many others out there facing challenges in a multitude of ways and I want to encourage everyone to talk. To tell a friend or professional. Or be the one to listen, to take someone seriously and to really ask how he or she is feeling. While Cornell and Gannett have led the way in providing services across campus, I urge you to learn and practice how to be a caring and compassionate friend to those around you. Be the one who lets his or her friends know that you are willing to listen or point them toward further resources. The people you really care about, are you really investing in them?

With this ideal in mind, several student organizations have collaborated to host the Second CUnique Neurodiversity Conference on Saturday, November 8. This is a moment to listen, to understand, to shed light on some of the shared yet unique experiences and really create the caring community that Cornell strives for. I encourage you to attend and learn how you can be a part of that.

Despite my depression and anxiety and the many lows, setbacks and relapses I may have, each day that I take another breath or another step, I am winning because I am alive. I choose to keeping on living. Speaking out isn’t easy, but I think back to the other individuals who have and continue to speak out and remember that I am not alone. We should strive to let our close friends and circles feel that same way too. So let’s not work in silence, let’s make a resounding effort to cheer each other on.

We each have our own struggles, some more visible than others, but we should strive to make everyone feel supported in this Cornell community, and that means starting with the individuals around you. Be that one.

Teresa Danso-Danquah is a senior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at tod8@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.