Fighting from the inside

Students fight stigma through College Toolbox Project



Team Kick Stigma in the Balls slowly realizes they will be presenting before Glenn Close the next morning.

Freshman Emily Brzegowy looks over at her two teammates, opposite her at a table in the Indiana Memorial Union Food Court. “This is really ?happening.”

Freshman Sydney Shilkett and senior Kailyn Haverstock both nod at her. They weren’t nervous until right about now.

Tuesday morning, they will present their project, a culmination of a semester of work, to the College Toolbox Project team, including Close. The program’s goal is to find projects that will raise awareness and start conversation about mental ?health stigma.

Their team project is a large kickball tournament. They talk strategy — “greeks will spread this like wildfire” — and their hopes for the future. An event as big as IU Dance Marathon or Hoosiers Outrun Cancer.

Emily’s whole face lights up when she talks. She is quick to laugh. “Maybe even as big as Little Five, in its own way,” she says.

She is determined to find a way to help people feel comfortable talking about stigma.

Emily, a freshman with three majors, has lived with depression for ?almost her entire life.

Emily, Sydney and Kailyn are all students in Bernice Pescosolido’s class titled S101: #stigmasucks: The Interplay of Mental Illness, Media and Social Change.

Presenting to the College Toolbox Project team is not a requirement of the class, but they, like many teams, figured there was no extra work involved, so why not?

In preparation, the team learned about public service announcements — the equipment, the lighting, the scripting. They scrapped together a visual PSA in six weeks with iMovie. They had to call in help from a few friends. They arranged their event project with detail down to when shirts would be bought and where flyers would ?be placed.

Emily sees this work — this championing of those who live with mental illness — as her life mission.

U Bring Change 2 Mind is IU’s outward expression of the College Toolbox Project, for which IU is the pilot school. Students create projects and events to spread awareness of ?mental health stigma.

If successful, colleges throughout the United States will have a toolbox of ideas and programs to help students recognize stigma and have the tools to fight back.

Teams like Emily’s are only the start.

Society is desensitized to mental health issues, Emily says. A teddy bear in a straitjacket, a donut shop called Psycho Donuts, the lazy application of the word “crazy” — all examples of how stigma reduces mental illness ?to a joke.

***

Emily was in second grade when she began to question her existence.

Her great aunt died when she was in second grade. What started as a deep sadness grew deeper and deeper until she became suicidal. She was soon diagnosed with ?major depression.

But growing up, her depression was very “hush-hush,” Emily said. Her family told her not to mention her therapist. When she expressed a desire to find a cure for depression, some members of her family would say to “just pop a pill.” On days when she was feeling social, her friends would look at her strangely and ask, “Have you taken your meds today ?or something?”

Small gestures like that, even meant in jest or love, shut mental illness sufferers out. Stigma is pernicious and wide-ranging with many faces and forms. Sometimes, it’s a family member who believes your problem is all in your head.

There’s a widely held misconception that mental illness only affects certain people — sad teenagers or weird loners or people forced to live in straitjackets, Emily said.

The majority of the American public believes, with the exception of depression, those experiencing mental health problems pose a threat for violence toward others, according to the College Toolbox Project website. They’re also seen as unfit for child care, teaching children or marrying into another family.

People would rather be miserable and alone than try to reach out and fix the problem, all because of stereotyping like this, ?Sydney said.

If stigma didn’t exist, Emily said she is sure the world would fund research?on depression.

Stigma prevents these movements from being taken seriously, she said. She had thought about starting a club at IU that would fight just that but ultimately decided not to, afraid no one would be interested.

To Emily, passing off pills on the afflicted is an easy, halfway answer. She dreams of working for the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and discovering the cure for depression, preferably without using pills.

“I refuse to let people see me as one way when that’s not who I am,” she said. “And I don’t want other people to think that, because of the stigma, you can’t be who you are.”

College is the place for this program, Emily said, because at this age, students have both open minds and a willingness to make ?change happen.

People will pay attention, Emily said. The “End the R-word” campaign started small, but has quickly changed how people view use of the word “retarded.” Emily sees stigma as the next big thing.

“Once you plant the idea, it will grow like a weed,” she said. “People will think of it years down the line.”

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