With widely recognized events like World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10th) and Mental Illness Awareness week (October 5-11th) dialogue surrounding mental illness has slowly tried to dismantle the stigma that those suffering often experience. Decreasing the stigma means enabling others to share their story within their communities. However, such an idea hasn’t always been so accessible, especially for college students. Luckily, organizations like To Write Love Her on Arms have established university chapters aimed at “encouraging, informing and inspiring” individuals to seek recovery while allowing them to share their story. Sarah Vancini, co-president of Boston College’s TWLOHA chapter, is passionate about sharing a message of hope to those on campus, which is the inspiration behind a new video series centered on mental illness within the BC community.
Sarah, welcome! Before we begin could you tell me a little about yourself?
Well, I am a senior as well as the Co-President of BC’s To Write Love on Her Arms chapter. I would also consider myself a survivor of mental illness at Boston College; I want to carry the message of hope to those suffering silently from a mental illness on campus today.
So when was TWLOHA introduced to the BC campus?
TWLOHA is an international organization, but the BC chapter was officially established in January of this year. Cassidy Gallegos, a junior and my co-president, founded the campus chapter and actually had been working on bringing a chapter of TWLOHA here since the summer of last year. Our membership has been blooming this fall and we are honored to have received such a positive response from the student body. Our first meeting of the semester will actually be this Sunday at 5 pm in Higgins 310.
You briefly mentioned your experience with mental illness. Could you possibly elaborate more on what motivated you to join BC’s To Write Love on Her Arms chapter?
I personally struggled with anxiety and depression at BC and when I first began seeking professional help I felt ashamed. I was worried my peers would socially ostracize me knowing I was struggling with such a stigmatized disease. I believed the stigma: I believed I was defected. Believing the stigma interfered with my treatment. Honestly, I wasn’t fully committed to conquering my mental illness until I let go of my fears. After a number of years I was able to fully accept my illnesses and treatment when others around me shared their stories of struggling. I wish I could say I had the courage to be the first one to speak up but that is definitely not the case. When I saw others could still have friends and be successful while having a mental illness, I knew the same could be true for myself. Through hearing others’ stories I was able to fully commit to treatment. I gave myself a fighting chance to overcome my mental illnesses. It took me a long time to hear others' stories and overcome the stigma of mental illness to get better. I do not wish anyone to face the pain this stigma of mental illness has caused me. However, I am happy I finally overcame it. In the short run, I hope to speed up the process of recovery for many students by sharing my story. In the long run, I want to end the stigma of mental illness on college campuses. This is why I joined To Write Love on Her Arms - by supporting events and meetings where people openly talk about their struggles and recovery from mental health issues in a healthy way we can decrease the stigma and ultimately see students receive the medical help they need.
That’s lovely that you’re using your story to help decrease stigmatization. What would you say is your group’s mission? Are there any particular goals for reaching the student body this semester?
We are the bridge between students silently struggling from mental illnesses on campus and professional help. At our meetings we have students share their stories of recovery from mental illnesses and host professors to share their professional experiences studying or treating these illnesses. We also host events and projects to decrease the stigma of mental illness on campus such as National Suicide Prevention Week and the Video Series project. We want to get as many students involved in mental health as possible. You don’t need to personally struggle with a mental illness to join our organization; we have many, many members who have never struggled with a mental illness but genuinely care about the well-being of BC students.
So I was informed that To Write Love on Her Arms has a video project in the works that centers on the BC population, would you care to elaborate on it?
Stigma is created by repeated images and stories being shared. In our culture, the media, through TV shows, movies and advertisements, repeatedly shares with us the story that if you have a mental illness you are irrational, a failure and not part of a social community. People at BC are therefore deterred from accepting their mental illness and getting the help they need. Listening to stories that contradict those we view every day through the media is what decreases the stigma.
There are many support groups such as To Write Love On Her Arms where people can go share their stories to decrease the stigma of mental illnesses. However, these support groups are anonymous and must compete with the massive resources of media companies. Because of this, for most people in our culture, these support groups are losing the battle right now.
In the project, we will be proudly sharing the real stories of students struggling and recovering from mental illness on the BC campus. Video allows these stories to reach more students and therefore compete with the media and the present cultural norm more effectively. These videos will be posted to YouTube and TWLOHA’s Facebook page as well as the UGBC website.
Do you think that this video will help foster a healthy dialogue about mental health and reduce stigmatization? When will it be released and what methods did you use to authentically capture the experiences of college students?
The goal of the video project is to give the truth of mental illness a fighting chance: We want people to know it is ok not to be ok. Mental illness is just as powerful as physical illness. Mental illness has nothing to do with your character or morals. You can still be a put-together, beautiful, successful, popular student and struggle with a mental illness so knowing that we hope it reduces stigmatization. The video will be released on Monday, September 15th, and I couldn’t have done it without the help of Rachel Hess ’15, a film and communications major as well as my partner in the video.
That’s soon! Whose story will be shared first or is it somewhat of a surprise?
Well, the first story shared will come from a male senior, but that’s all I can say. We’re leaving who it is as a surprise until Monday!
Do you have any advice for anyone suffering from mental health issues?
Well, I would say please seek professional help. Talk to supportive friends about these issues and be honest with yourself and others (ex. professors). I’ve learned that BC professors are usually very accommodating and understanding. It could also help to join a supportive community like To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA). When you feel well enough, take it upon yourself to help others struggling get to treatment. Finally, I would say that no matter what you’re facing right now know that it gets better.
If you are a student or faculty member and would like to share your story in the video series you can send an email to Sarah Vancini at firstname.lastname@example.org.