On Feb. 20, the Active Minds chapter at Wellesley hosted a six-hour intensive workshop to help develop leadership skills through mental health storytelling. The event was led by Maggie Bertram, a professional mental health speaker and full-time staff member at the Active Minds national office in Washington, D.C.
When asked about how the Stone Center allocates funds, Robin Cook-Nobles, Ed.D., director of the Stone Center said only, “The Counseling Service is a part of the Stone Center, and the College funds the Stone Center including The Counseling Service.”
The 20 or so participants who attended the workshop engaged in a wide variety of mediums for telling their stories; some told their stories through poetry, some through personal essays, some were working on chapters to books they planned on writing and yet others wanted to be public speakers.
“All of our mental health stories are ongoing,” Bertram explained. “We’re still here, we’re still living them, and so I help people craft their stories. Regardless of the format, the idea is to create a product that is honest but safe from common triggers that the audience might have, and to keep the author or speaker safe.”
In order to ensure safety among the participants, supportive counselors from the Stone Center dedicated their Saturday to be present at the workshop, just in case anyone felt that they were bringing back memories that were not fully healed yet.
According to Bertram, one in every four college students struggles with a mental health disorder at some point in their college career. For the people in that 25 percent, sharing stories is helpful in letting them know that they are not alone. Meanwhile, for those in the 75 percent who might be trying to support someone who has a mental illness, hearing those stories and the fact that they are getting through hard times gives hope and sheds light on how to be a better friend.
“The true work today was done by these students who were all being courageous and telling relative strangers little bits and pieces of a story that is very personal to them,” Bertram proudly reflected. “They were delving into stuff that they might have never told anyone before, and they found a way to do it so that the person next to them could relate to something that they had to say. Generally, I think the students felt empowered by the experience and excited to continue to craft their stories and find outlets for them.”
These outlets and their corresponding audiences varied for different people at the workshop. For some students the goal of the workshop was more personal in that they were looking to find a way to conceptualize the experiences that they had.
“Not only did [the workshop] help the attendees focus on what their mental health story is,” commented Dana Fein-Schaffer ’19, the social chair of Active Minds at Wellesley, “but it also stressed how important speaking about one’s personal experience is to the effort to reduce stigma surrounding mental health.”
Other students were figuring out how they would tell close friends and family back home about experiences regarding mental health that arose at Wellesley but were nonexistent the last time they saw each other in person.
Yet other students were more interested in becoming public speakers on speaker’s bureaus such as Active Minds; some of these mediums included open mics, monologues, slam poetry and even a comedy routine.
“We talked about how to be funny about something that is so serious without stigmatizing the issue or being offensive,” Bertram added, “and there’s definitely a way to do it, but it’s nuanced. I heard a lot of people talking about wanting to be respectful of the audience and not wanting to offend or trigger them. We definitely had a very caring and compassionate group of people here today.”
Bertram stated that her motivation for becoming a mental health speaker boiled down to one big realization: when she was in college, the stigma surrounding mental illnesses made it seem like seeking help for mental health was a sign of weakness, and she felt that people needed to know that it is always okay to seek help.
“The sense that I have gotten from students here is that there is a very welcoming dialogue about these issues, which is fantastic. This kind of culture definitely did not exist when I was in college,” Bertram said.
This degree of societal growth shows that there are things that individuals can do to change the culture that society has around mental health and mental illness.
“My goal in doing workshops like this is to help people realize that they all have a story worth telling, and that by telling their stories, even if the audience is just their friends and family, they have the ability to start to change the culture,” Bertram explained. “No one person is going to be able to touch everybody in the world who needs education about mental illness, but one by one, we can make a difference.”
The idea is that by working together as a community, little by little, all of these mental health stories together will create a ripple effect: one person might only tell their story to three people, but their story affects the way those three people respond to other people with mental illnesses that they come in contact with in the future.
Bertram said that according to research, people are more likely to seek help if they know someone who has done the same. “Stigma against seeking help and against mental illnesses is significantly decreased by knowing someone and having someone talk to them about having a mental illness,” Bertram confirmed.
Another important reason for sharing these stories is that doing so humanizes mental illnesses. Most people see mental illness when a mass shooting or some other violent crime breaks out, but violence is a mask that only a tiny fraction of people with mental illnesses put on. Storytelling gives mental illness a face.
“I find that doing workshops like this helps with healing the people who come. It gets their stories, their memories, out of their head and off their heart and onto a piece of paper, where all those experiences feel a little bit more manageable, and I think that that can be really helpful. It’s less about what happened—less about events, less about product—and more about the process.”
Photo courtesy of Nusrat Jahan ’16, Contributing Photographer