Frank Warren created PostSecret nearly eleven years ago, starting out by soliciting secrets from strangers in the D.C. metro. He expected to receive only 100 postcards at first, but has received about half a million from all over the world since he began. PostSecret is an art project where people anonymously mail postcards to Warren’s home in Germantown, MD, confessing anything as petty as hating a coworker, to something deep as the unknown paternity of a child.
The PostSecret Event with Warren last night, a joint effort with KPU and the Student government, was a success. Both organizations did a wonderful job with the event itself, and Warren proved to be a compelling and inspirational speaker. But regarding discussion of mental illness on campus, the event and presentation glossed over real issues facing students on American University’s campus.
Warren touched on the issue of mental illness and suicide, citing that 1,100 college students take their own lives each year. Warren related this to the audience by saying that “three of you are sitting next to someone that has tried to kill themselves.”
I am one of those three, and am anything but quiet about my struggles with mental illness. I’ve talked publicly over my time at AU about the struggles I’ve had with suicide, depression, self-harm, destructive behavior, and living in a group home.
Although it’s encouraging that AU’s student government is seeking to create a community that supports one another, it’s not enough. I don’t feel that my story or the stories of those I love are being represented. The mental health needs of our student body aren’t being met, and I know that other students feel the same way.
To address mental illness on campus, we have to talk about the students who attempt to kill themselves on our campus and are shipped off, the students who are involuntarily hospitalized by the university, and students who cannot access care. Simply bringing a well known supporter of the American Suicide Prevention Foundation to campus is inadequate when only 75 or 100 people attend.
Mary-Margaret Koch, director of Mental Health Advocacy in AUSG, said that “last night’s collaborative event with AUSG and KPU was the kickoff event for the PostSecretU project at American University, and was also meant to start conversations about mental health through the familiar frame of sharing a secret.”
Regarding the Mental Health Working Group she said,
“This year the AUSG Mental Health Working Group has been working on issues that pertain to mental health on campus such as educating professors on how to use trigger warnings in their classrooms, helping organize a mental health forum with the AU Counseling Center, and now is working on planning the PostSecretU mental health community art project.”
The Mental Health Working Group on campus under Pres. Gilthorpe’s cabinet, headed by director Mary-Margaret Koch, has been working on these issues this year. They hosted a well-received “dogs on the quad” event in November in conjunction with the counseling center. Recently, on February 16th, they hosted a mental health forum with the counseling center, which was not as popular in term of general attendance.
Additionally, the working group organized a document that was distributed to 40 professors during a workshop regarding trigger warnings on October 29th. There were 848 professors who worked at AU in 2013-2014, so most of the professors on campus did not receive this document, which explained trigger warnings and their proper use. I have not personally experienced any increased awareness of trigger warnings among professors.
Senator Will Mascaro said;
“I think the Mental Health working group, Mary-Margaret especially, has worked really hard this semester to push this issue to the forefront of the campus conversation. But, now that this has happened, I think we need to take it a step further. Focusing on how we actually expand access to care, and improve the quality of that care, has to be the next issue we as students begin to tackle.”
What the Student Government and voices on campus are missing is that it takes more than building a community on good faith that supports one another. While that’s an important component of mental health, honest and frank discussion about mental health issues other than stress is necessary.
It’s easy to discuss stress and ways to prevent it, but it’s difficult and still shameful to talk about auditory hallucinations, dissociative episodes, and suicidal ideation. We need less discussions and yoga workshops about stress, and more honest discussions about the aspects of mental illness that scare us.
Only 20% of students at universities and colleges say that they would access help at their campus counseling center. It would be more than fair to apply that statistic to our counseling center at AU. Warren said in his presentation that help is available through “medication, therapy, God, art, friendship, and other things.” While this is true, it would be beneficial if students on campus were more aware of how to navigate the mental health system both on and off campus.
It would also be beneficial if the counseling center on campus developed peer-to-peer initiatives, since they and Student Government seem fixated on a sense of community as a cure-all for mental illness on campus.
What happens once we tell our secrets? What resources do we have as students on this campus once we breathe the words we want no one else to hear? Revealing personal secrets does not automatically heal you. We need to become better at picking up the pieces after those secrets are revealed.
Visit the PostSecret website here.