Story and gallery by SAVANNAH BERNARDO
As humans, each one of us is unique.
Just as our bones grow, our thoughts grow. Just as our bones develop muscles, our thoughts develop emotions. And just as our bones and muscles have developed the structure that our body is today, our thoughts and emotions have developed the structure that our mind is today.
We all have a different design that makes up how we see ourselves and how other people see us. But this is only half of what makes us unique.
The distinct way that each mind reacts and responds to different circumstances is what makes each human an individual. Each thought and emotion created is a response to a variety of different circumstances that we experience. However, the difference is how each mind will react.
Our perceptions and reactions to other people’s emotions is the reason for the stigma surrounding mental illness. Because we are unique, we all have a different story comprised of thoughts and emotions. But how often are we mindful of the details in this story? Once they come into awareness, we as a society become mindful. And only when we are mindful will we be able to stop reacting — and start being proactive.
Stigma occurs when we are unsure of how to react. Instead of trying to empathize, our lack of understanding causes a shameful judgement. This is stigma. And its mark of disgrace is left on those diagnosed with a mental illness. For many generations, stereotypes and misconceptions have caused stigmatization against people who have been diagnosed. But if we are all humans with these unique minds, why is our first reaction to judge what we don’t understand?
Mayumi Shill, 22, programs coordinator at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), describes this as a “zoomed out view.” While zoomed out, many people diagnosed with a mental illness are blamed for their disorder. There is a common curiosity as to why someone cannot just choose to be happy. This concern implies that they must be doing something wrong, and that there is a simple fix to the problem.
Just be happy.
If only life were that simple. However, simplicity does not always amount to happiness. Along with finding happiness comes facing adversity.
Andrew Smith, 35, a psychologist at the University of Utah Hospital, said, “Many people will experience some kind of mental difficulty in their life span.” But this is normal. This is what makes us human. “We’re all in this human experience together,” he said, and it’s important that we “help normalize that experience, together.”
EVERYONE HAS A STORY
That human experience is our story. Shill, with NAMI, said, “Everyone has a story, everyone has a different journey, and just because you don’t struggle with a mental illness, doesn’t mean that the person next to you isn’t.”
So let’s zoom in. If we take a moment to listen to the details, we will be able to hear the real story. And most importantly — accept it.
Samantha Shaw, 20, a junior at the U, said sharing her story was the best decision she ever made. Shaw was diagnosed with depression during her sophomore year of high school, but still had the thought, “This can’t be real. I can just choose to be happy.”
Even her boyfriend at the time advised her to smile more and be grateful she didn’t have something more serious like cancer.
Shaw said she felt like she had become trapped inside of her mental illness. “I felt very defined by it,” she said.
But little did she know, this was just part of her human experience.
After high school, she found her outlet in creativity and consistently wrote down her thoughts and emotions through poetry and short stories.
Her mindful awareness allowed her to accept her emotional state, rather than react to it. She was being proactive. This acceptance led her to talk about her mental illness more openly and no longer be defined by it.
PROACTIVE RATHER THAN REACTIVE
The Counseling Center at the U, supports this proactive approach. Staff are actively educating students through presentations on campus about their services. Lauren Weitzman, director of the University Counseling Center, said their underlying goal is to normalize everybody’s mental health.
It also provides an important service called the Mindfulness Center. Free workshops are held on the third floor of the student services building. Students may drop in for meditation to learn mindfulness strategies to help manage stress and anxiety and check in with their overall mental health. “Everybody can benefit from it, and it can help everyone’s well-being,” Weitzman said.
And while being on campus is convenient for students, the Counseling Center also refers people to a variety of additional resources around the Wasatch Front, including NAMI.
NAMI is a national nonprofit advocacy organization that provides help and hope in relation to mental illness. It has a range of peer taught support, education and school programs that are available to the public.
Along with these programs, it offers everybody the chance to stand together and pledge to be stigma free.
By taking this pledge we are joining together as a society.
We are recognizing that we are all humans with a unique story. But as Andrew Smith, the psychologist at the University Hospital, said, we are in that human experience together. And as we bring awareness and acceptance into our mentality, we are practicing mindfulness. Only when we are mindful, Smith said, will we be able to “do a better job at supporting each other.”