Students Speak Up to Change Conversations on Mental Health
*This piece was written for my feature writing class in November 2015 intended for an audience of Ithaca College students. In some cases, last names have been removed to protect anonymity.
Every week, somewhere on campus a group of students from Ithaca College Active Minds are sitting in a classroom sharing their stories living with mental illness or experiencing it through a friend or family member. Trying to break down stigma, they give fellow students the chance to see that those suffering from mental health issues are their friends, classmates, and people they see every day. These students are giving voice to an issue and common struggle that’s almost never talked about.
According to Matthew, junior integrated marketing communications major and events chair for Active Minds, it’s a “mental health advocacy organization that plans events, campaigns, and activities to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness.”
Founded at Ithaca College in 2007, the group has participated in campaigns like National Eating Disorders Awareness Month, National Day Without Stigma, and Sexual Assault Awareness Month while engaging in conversations around mental health.
A large part of what Active Minds does is putting on Speak Your Mind (SYM) panels in classrooms which give students the chance to talk openly to other students about mental health. These panels which have been going on across campus since 2008, are often conducted in psychology and sociology classes, and first-year seminars.
Matthew, who did his first SYM panel in October 2015, said he wanted to be part of Speak Your Mind after he saw one at the end of his freshman year. “It was very inspiring to see people speak so candidly about their experiences,” he said. It made him eager to participate himself.
Even though he had some reservations, Matthew shared his story living with OCD, ADHD, and depression. “I want to make every effort I possibly can to make students experiencing mental illness and going through what I was feel less alone,” he said.
According to sophomore documentary studies major and Active Minds co-chair, Luis Torres, “One in four college students has a diagnosable mental illness, so it’s relevant but it doesn’t get talked about too often. The panels try to start those conversations.”
Torres and A.C. Tierney, Active Minds SYM co-chairs, train panelists, go over best practices, help them craft their stories, and moderate the panels. Panelists are given plenty of opportunities to practice and rehearse their stories.
Even so, “the hardest time is always the first time,” Torres said. “It will lose its scare factor after a while. The most important aspect is to stay true to your story.”
Torres and Tierney are also responsible for creating a safe space for panelists. “Most of our hands-on work is during question time,” said Torres. “If you do get a problematic question, as a moderator, it’s your job to step in.”
This is rarely an issue, though, because audience reactions are overwhelmingly positive. According to Torres, afterwards people often stare, stunned because they’re not used to hearing people share so intimately. Some students in the audience have also joined Active Minds because of SYM panels and helped continue the conversation.
Emmaline DiPace, first-year physical therapy major, who saw her first classroom SYM panel in October 2015 said that many of her classmates didn’t know about the resources available to them on campus or where CAPS was. The SYM panel gave them a chance to ask questions and discuss mental health in college. DiPace also described how her classmates transformed from not wanting to be there to being attentive and engaged after the panelists spoke.
The conversations are important, but some students have commented on the lack of diversity among panelists. “A good 78% are white and female,” Torres said. “There’s only two active male students, including myself.”
To address this issue, Active Minds will soon be hosting an event called “Cultural Perspectives on Mental Health,” where students of color and LGBTQ+ students will be sharing their stories and addressing the way their minority status impacts their mental health.
The panel will take place on November 19th from 6-8 p.m in Textor 102 and it will be composed of 10 students representing racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, and gender minorities.
“We want to make sure that our activism isn’t all white activism and that it’s intersectional,” Torres said. Intersectionality is acknowledging that marginalized identities—in terms of race, gender, ability, sexuality, and class—intersect to inform one’s privilege and position in society.
“We’ve been corresponding with ALANA and LGBT groups as a way to make sure marginalized groups stories are told without tokenizing them,” Tierney said. We want everyone to know that each story is an individual perspective.”
The co-chairs recently decided not to call the event a “diversity panel” because they thought it took the focus away from mental health. Instead, panelists can choose to bring in their identity as much as it’s relevant.
“Having those faces allows more people to relate to it because people tend to relate to others who look like them,” said Torres.
According to Jessica, junior speech and language pathology major and SYM panelist, joining SYM and speaking openly about her experiences with OCD has made her feel more comfortable and accepting of herself. She’s open about her experiences with mental illness with people even outside of SYM and doesn’t feel the need to hide anything.
“It’s normal for people to have mental illnesses, so I shouldn’t be ashamed of what I’ve been through,” Jessica said.
SYM panels are oftentimes a positive experience for both panelists and audience members alike in helping to cultivate a greater understanding of mental illness and identity.
According to Tierney, the panels helped her become a much more vulnerable and honest person. “Being able to own my struggle instead of viewing it as something that shouldn’t be talked about has helped me be more at peace with myself.”
Tierney, Torres, and other members of SYM are using their platform to expand the conversation on mental health and uplift the voices of others.
 African, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American
Self-Care for Activists
*This specialty story was originally written for my feature writing coursework in November 2015.
Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
If you’re an activist—working to save the planet, maintaining a feminist blog, or attending rallies in support of reproductive rights, just to name a few—the work you do is probably really rewarding. But also really difficult. It’s time consuming, it can be disappointing and draining, and it can feel like there are a lot of forces against you at times. At the end of the day, after organizing events and campaigns, attending rallies, and posting articles about your cause on social media—you’re probably really tired. Not to mention that if you’re the kind of person who’s always attending protests, participating in social media campaigns, and speaking with your legislators, you probably have a million other things on your plate as well—like homework, extracurricular activities, and relationships to maintain.
The need for this activism isn’t going to suddenly disappear. There’s always a social justice cause in the spotlight, all over social media, and in our everyday lives— and that means that activists need to be able to sustain their energy, their enthusiasm, and their overall wellbeing.
“Self-care” refers to attitudes and behaviors we engage in to honor our needs and prioritize our well-being. Too often, self-care is downplayed and seen as “unnecessary” or even selfish. This, however, can be extremely challenging for two reasons. On one hand, it is extremely challenging to actually take a break when we live in a culture that constantly bombards us with injustices to fight against. For example, if you’re a reproductive justice activist, it can be difficult to stay positive with news like the Colorado Springs shooter and being surrounded by constant hateful, anti-abortion rhetoric. Just the other day, I was driving on the highway and I saw a billboard that read: “Abortion Causes Breast Cancer” (it doesn’t) and I was angry. It’s 2015. I didn’t choose to see that sign; but it was in my path. It can be difficult to keep going in a world that tells you that your needs and your cause is insignificant.
Knowing all of that, how do we really practice self-care effectively as activists?
Decide What Works Best For You
Although activism is typically a community effort, self-care is highly individual. The first and more effective step to take when practicing self-care is giving yourself time to figure out that works best for you personally.
Take a moment to think about what are specific actions you can take. What makes you feel good? These actions can even be small. If you’ve been emailing and organizing an event all day, shut down your computer and take a break. If you just attended an intensive conference on your cause all weekend, make sure to get some sleep and maybe spend a day focusing on a hobby unrelated to your activism.
Melissa Fabello, body image activist, offers three questions to ask yourself when making a self-care plan: who, where, and what makes me feel safe.
It’s also important to foster self-care outside of your activism, sometimes activists can feel guilty about it because they think their activism should be the only thing that fuels them.
According to Liz Gipson, director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, “a huge part of self-care is making space for myself outside of work by having hobbies and interests that are unrelated—like painting—and also making sure I allow myself time to process what I’m feeling.”
Here are a few suggestions from Know Your IX on how to practice self-care:
- Turn off your phone or internet for X minutes
- Set a bed time in order to get at least 8 hours of sleep, or as much sleep as you need
- Eat meals regularly and drink enough water
- Set aside breaks and make sure not to schedule anything during those times
- Take a nap for X minutes
- Take a walk or work out
- Listen to music or play an instrument
- Be intentional about who you spend time and surround yourself with supportive people
- See a therapist
- Communicate with co-organizers who will be able to relate to how you feel
Create a Support System
Find friends, family, and co-organizers who will keep you accountable to putting your well-being first. For activists, building a community of people you can rely on is really important—new friendships is also one of the most rewarding parts of this work.
According to Dillon Randolph, POCatIC organizer, the other members of the coalition were the ones who taught him about self-care. The community they’ve built is what keeps him going when he struggles to find balance school and activism in his life.
Make Self-Care a Priority
Self-care is something that activists and organizers especially struggle with—oftentimes it is seen as being selfish. We’re taught that, in order to be “real activists,” we have to be self-sacrificing and never think about our own individual needs—only the needs of the movement.
Leah Ford, volunteer at Planned Parenthood in Memphis, T.N., says “I once heard someone compare self-care to the safety measures you follow during an oxygen deficiency on a plane: “Please put on your own mask before assisting others.” If you can’t breathe, you won’t be much help to other people.”
Make time for it—and the best way to make time for it is to say no to extra obligations.
You don’t always have to meet everyone else’s needs. Know your limits and stick to those limits. Schedule self-care practices into your everyday life—do small things like drink enough water, eat enough meals, sleep—and then set aside personal time to do other activities that make you happy.
Activism is a form of self-care.
Why did we even get ourselves into this mess and cause ourselves all this stress? Because we care. Activism is a great way to care for ourselves, even if it adds stress to our lives—it’s oftentimes worth the struggle because all the positive things that emerge from it. It is through our actions and collective organizing that we find communities of wonderful people, validation for our causes, and tangible outcomes that allow us to picture a better world. There are aspects of this work that can be overwhelming and draining, but ultimately, we are doing work that is productive and overwhelmingly positive.
Oftentimes activism is even more powerful than that. According to Kate Cartagena, national campus organizer for Planned Parenthood Generation Action, activism is a form of healing for some people. Activism was a form of healing for her personally as she discovered feminism, which helped her recover from an abusive relationship. She’s became an activist to help other women who might be in the same situation she was.
“I went from feeling helpless to feeling angry and wanted to do something,” Cartagena said.
The passion and emotion attached to activism is powerful and it drives people to want to create lasting social change. Take care of yourself, there’s still work to do to make the world a better place.
Ithaca Community Profile: Liz Gipson, Director of Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes
*This profile was written in September 2015 for my feature writing class
Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides health care to millions, faces the potential loss of federal funding after fraudulent videos were released in July 2015 that make it appear as if the organization sells aborted fetal issue. This caused an investigation and conservative politicians put forth legislation to prevent Planned Parenthood clinics from receiving federal funding.
To counter this negative image, Ithaca’s local chapter, Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, hired a new director of public affairs this past August.
Liz Gipson, 24, left New York City and the comfort of her old position as a program associate to organize activism in Ithaca. Gipson spends her time overseeing campus organizations, coordinating volunteer programs, running events, and meeting with politicians about legislated related to reproductive rights. She’s lobbied pro-life representatives and organized a letter writing campaign to thank for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for supporting Planned Parenthood.
Starting in August 2015, Gipson really “hit the ground running,” according to her supervisor, Alicia Kenaley, vice president of development and public affairs at PPSFL. By her second week on the job she had planned six events. She also oversees PPSFL’s Health Center Advocacy Program.
Her goal is “to have patients become activists for their own health care,” Gipson said. She believes there is often a gap between health care services and the advocacy department.
Despite managing all these tasks, Gipson is always quick to answer emails and keeps her office well-organized. She was dressed in jeans and a colorful sweater and had a nose ring.
Gipson is also working on a storytelling campaign showcasing people’s experiences with Planned Parenthood and the importance of its services. She brings these narratives to legislators to convince them to support Planned Parenthood.
“So often legislators don’t think about the person,” Gipson said. However, “if you attach a personal story it’s more effective, because it’s easy to ignore a statistic.”
After Gipson graduated from Barnard College in 2013 with a double-major in art history and gender and sexuality studies, she worked in the reproductive justice movement. She worked at NARAL Pro-Choice America and the National Institute for Reproductive Health in New York, N.Y. from August 2013 to July 2015 where she created resources on abortion, parenting, and adoption, and started campaigns on teen dating violence.
Gipson was active in the reproductive justice movement long before she entered the workforce. She first learned about these issues in college at a time when they became personal to her. “I needed to take an Introduction to Sexuality class while I was coming out as queer and that really politicized my identity,” Gipson said.
While on campus, Gipson worked on a photo campaign called “self-evident truths,” which highlighted the stories of queer people. With a group of artists, she traveled across the country collecting and taking photos that were then placed across the national mall in Washington, D.C.
“That changed my activism and look on the world,” Gipson said. Before the project grew to be nationally known, they “worked out of the founder of the project’s 300 sq. apartment on her sofa.” She saw how a project could grow and learned how to get people involved.
Gipson then became more active in reproductive justice when a friend of hers had an abortion.
“We were both so clueless. That made me feel so disempowered,” Gipson said. “I also got into reproductive justice because I was looking for a movement where the queer movement and abortion rights are related.”
Diversity and inclusivity in the reproductive justice movement are also important to Gipson. At PPSFL, she wants “to increase our activists that are young and queer and people of color.”
Gipson advocates for these groups often and was involved in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign in NYC. She is currently involved in queer and trans movements and educates others on the privileges that those who are cis-gendered—people whose identify with the gender that corresponds with their biological sex— have over those who are non-binary or transgender.
Gipson wants to stay in the reproductive justice movement, but she understands that the burnout rate is high. She realizes that she needs to give herself space to leave if she gets tired of interacting with anti-choice legislation and politicians.
“It’s frustrating because this movement is one step forward, two steps back,” Gipson said. Despite this, she and other employees at Planned Parenthood are grateful for their supporters and activists.
According to Kelsey McKim, senior journalism major and IC Planned Parenthood Generation Action chapter treasurer who works closely with Gipson, “it’s pretty clear she knows what she’s doing.” Since Gipson’s position was left vacant for a year due to financial issues, it’s useful to have someone whose job it is to work directly with activists, oversee student organizations like Generation Action at local colleges, and generate support for the organization in the Ithaca community.
Her goal is to build power and “educate people about the local politicians and how what they do and say affects the care we can provide.” She wants to empower people to realize they can change the current situation and political climate.
Gipson does this by using Facebook and Twitter to engage community members in social media campaigns. In September 2015, she organized a photo campaign in support of PPSFL. Students took pictures of themselves holding a sign that read: “I Stand With Planned Parenthood.”
“I think she’s using some smart strategies that will attract young people,” said McKim. “I was also impressed that she got the ball rolling in terms of reaching out to the community and getting people involved.” When her position was vacant, PPSFL’s online presence and communication with the Ithaca community suffered.
“Our visibility suffered not having someone in that position,” Kenaley said.
Even though Gipson works on the weekends a lot and she is usually on-call as a hotline volunteer for the National New York Abortion Fund, she does her best to prioritize self-care. In her free time, she enjoys painting, birdwatching, and spending time with her partner and their cat.