Silence engulfed the Pier in Tyler Haynes Commons as a spellbound audience listened to senior Christian Park perform an original song on Thursday night dedicated to his best friend who committed suicide.
Park was not alone -- many other University of Richmond students publicly shared their personal battles with depression, anxiety and other mental-health issues through poetry, journal entries and other writings.
The students’ display of solidarity was part of In My Mind, an event co-sponsored by Counseling and Psychological Services and the Richmond College Student Government Association that was designed to give students a platform to express their mental health struggles and support one another.
The stage was open to anyone who wished to speak and pieces submitted before the event, including some submissions from students who are currently abroad, were read anonymously by CAPS interns.
The event’s open-mic format was similar to that of Take Back the Night, a forum for survivors of sexual violence.
Omar Vicente, a senior CAPS intern, said he had been inspired by Take Back the Night and had suggested hosting an event aimed at generating open conversation about mental health.
“It’s a pretty simple concept in terms of having people basically walk up and share what they want to share,” Vicente said.
Many of the speakers said they had come with no intention of speaking but then had felt compelled to share their stories.
Fighting tears, one student described the devastating effect of multiple loved ones’ suicides on his life. Another student sparked uncontrollable laughter in the crowd by putting a comedic spin on the conundrum of balancing both depression and anxiety.
Although emotional responses varied throughout the night, there was a consistent theme of support. Each student received thunderous applause after sharing.
Sophomore Ally Charleston, chair of student affairs for the Westhampton College Government Association, helped plan the event. Although WCGA was not affiliated with the event, Charleston said she was pleased that students had felt comfortable and encouraged to share.
“A lot of people didn’t plan on going up at first, but then felt empowered to speak,” she said. “That just made me feel really good that everyone felt like they were in a safe place to speak.”
Junior Robert Ryan, RCSGA vice president for student experience, said the UR student governments had chosen to focus on promoting mental health this year because young people are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues yet are pressured to suffer in silence.
Ryan stressed the importance of creating an inclusive environment and supporting those brave enough to speak up about the issues he or she is facing.
“Often, especially on a college campus, there’s a stigma where you don’t want people to know that you’re going through something, so people don’t always seek the resources they need,” Ryan said. “We want people to actually be able to share their stories with others and know that we can rely on each other.”
Flyers listing the resources available to students were handed out at the event and CAPS clinicians were also present to offer their services.
Kristen Day, a CAPS clinician who supervises the CAPS interns, helped with coordinating In My Mind. The event was intended to support students and supply them with resources, Day said.
“The goal is to reduce the stigma about sharing mental-health struggles,” she said. “Sometimes people struggle in silence, so we’re trying to counter that.”
Students who attended In My Mind said they appreciated learning more about mental health issues by hearing both professional opinions and their fellow students’ stories.
“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about mental health,” Claire Passero, senior, said. “Hearing it from personal stories is important.”
Another senior, Shaina D’Souza, said she had felt a good sense of community at the event, which made people more comfortable sharing.
“To get rid of the stigma is a noble concept,” she added.
Ryan, Vicente and Charleston all said they wanted In My Mind to become an annual event to continue breaking down barriers and decreasing the stigma.
“We’d really like to make it an annual event, and, given how successful it was, that’s a real possibility,” Charleston said.
For Ryan, the long-term goal is to change the culture on campus toward mental health.
“We want this to be part of what it means to be a Richmond Spider.” Ryan said, “The feeling of inclusivity, especially in the mental-health area.”
Contact contributor and copy editor Erika Echternach at firstname.lastname@example.org.