When Kristina Keidel ‘17 arrived at Denison, Active Minds was an inactive chapter that had lost contact with the national organization.
About four to six people would show up to meetings. They very rarely planned programs or events. Still, Keidel cared deeply about the group: “I have always been very passionate about mental health and when I heard that Active Minds was all about mental health awareness, I knew it was the club for me.”
Meanwhile, Brooke Hubbard ‘18, still a senior in high school, was speaking in Colorado secondary schools about suicide and depression as part of peer education group Colie’s Closet. When the club won a grant from the Dave Nee Foundation, Hubbard was invited to speak at a gala in Manhattan, where she heard about Active Minds. Her interest was piqued: “I started looking into schools I was applying to that had chapters.”
In 2014, Keidel became president, and reconnected Denison Active Minds to the national organization. The group began reaching out to the campus community, and Denison responded: they raised over $1,000, and these days, weekly meetings sometimes draw a crowd of over 50 people. Active Minds also sponsors events and programs every day of Mental Health Awareness Week.
“Our overall mission is to raise mental health awareness, reduce stigma around mental illness, and provide resources to college students in regards to overall mental health,” Keidel explains. Even amidst all of the exciting changes of the past year, though, the Denison community still has work to do in progressing towards those goals.
“As a community I think we focus so much on being ‘the best’ that if someone feels less then perfect because they struggle with a mental illness, they are afraid to speak up or to reach out and go to counseling,” says Keidel. “A lot of people have told me they are afraid to go to counseling because they think others will think they are weak.”
Anyone can go to counseling. You don’t have to have major issues, or even issues – if you just want someone to talk to and listen, that is 100% fine.”
For first-year students, adds Hubbard, the stigma can be especially challenging. During her first few months at Denison, she struggled with a particularly bad period of depression, which made the transition to college especially difficult. “I think it can be really intimidating and scary to talk about your own struggles with mental health, especially in a new environment like a college,” she says. “In my eyes everyone else, both around me and from home, seemed to be having a great, care-free time at their own schools with little to no struggle in making the transition and I felt completely out of that loop.” Getting involved with Active Minds helped, but as they worked to bring new life to the group, she remembers, “It was definitely difficult to explain to people why we all felt it was such a pressing issue without crossing into the territory of telling a complete stranger about my own mental health struggles.”
That kind of openness, however, is one of the hallmarks of the organization’s de-stigmatizing approach. At meetings, members discuss mental health issues and share ways of dealing with them. One recent gathering, for example, featured student presentations on anxiety and panic attacks, followed by a large-group discussion of what people had found helpful in reducing them: breathing exercises, creative writing, exercise, spending time outside, coloring books.
“Taking a warm bath,” suggested a faculty member in attendance, which elicited groans from students. (Sadly, baths aren’t usually an option in residence halls.)
Active Minds also takes those conversations outside of their meeting room, trying to engage the whole campus in a dialogue.
Both Keidel and Hubbard encourage their peers to make the most of what Denison has to offer. “A great resource that is accessible (and free!) that Denison has to offer students is the Counseling Center in Whisler,” Hubbard points out. “We’re hoping to do a mock counseling intake (a first counseling session) with a few of our board members and counselors from Whisler at one of our meetings, too, so that anyone who’s curious about counseling and what a session would be like can get a good idea!”
It was a point that Stamas stressed, too. “Anyone can go to counseling,” he reminded readers. “You don’t have to be having any major issues, or even issues at all – if you just want someone to talk to and listen, that is 100% fine.”