Last week the fifth annual Elephant in the Room united the university community around students’ shared mental health and illness experiences. More than 120 people attended the event, which was organized by student-led group Change Your Mind.
Inspired by the Elephant in the Room Anti-Stigma Campaign created by Mood Disorders Canada, Change Your Mind is passionate about giving students the opportunity to fight stigma and work towards community acceptance of those with mental illness. The event requests that the privacy of speakers be protected and thus minimal quotations are used in this article.
Five students told their stories.
Leo Gertler, a second-year English student, shared his thoughts about what it means to receive or seek mental health help. According to Gertler, access to mental health services is heavily influenced by class structures, and this plays out in the education system. He believes that in order to make services more accessible and less oppressive, people living with mental illnesses can form their own support structures among themselves.
Bryaunna Williams, who is in her final year of psychology and sociology studies, discussed her history of borderline personality disorder, eating disorders and self-harm. Williams’ words spoke to individuals who are seeking meaningful and beautiful life moments amidst the challenges of day-to-day mental illness.
Laura Penney, a third-year environmental science student, performed a monologue she wrote about schizophrenia. It exemplified the necessity of recognizing and respecting the humanity in others no matter what they are going through. Penney explained that in dealing with the uncertainty of mental illness, love and other forms of support can help individuals live and grow despite these challenges.
Laura Medicoff, a fourth-year biology and psychology student, shared her experience of being in a psychiatric ward and discussed the harmful stigmas surrounding them. However, she said that through her experiences she “came to see [the psychiatric ward] as a bit of a reset button, where you can leave all your baggage at the door, whether it be work, school, or relationship problems, and just focus on getting better.” Medicoff found the psychiatric ward to be a compassionate environment that supported and did not judge those with mental illness.
Caroline Kovesi, a fifth-year sociology student, outlined her experiences with anxiety, perfectionism and depression. Kovesi sought to reach out to fellow students. “I hope that some of what I share might resonate with you and help validate your experiences along with mine,” she said.
Kovesi discussed the intertwining of these mental illnesses and how their daily manifestations differ from existing stereotypes of mental illness. She said it is important to her that people living with mental illnesses find solidarity with each other and recognize the immense strength and resilience they have in facing mental illness every day.
The speakers’ stories ignited supportive community dialogue. Third-year biochemistry and international relations student Shayla Baumeler said that “the diverse speakers at Elephant in the Room gave perspective of the [degree to which] mental illness affects our friends and family, and made everyone feel connected in some way.”
Rachel Sneddon, a third-year history student, said that Elephant in the Room was “a place where people with mental illness could open up and express how they felt, such as Penney’s honest visual representation of schizophrenia.”
After the closing words, the audience was invited to stay and share their thoughts of the event over refreshments. Some individuals took the opportunity to share their “elephant in the room” with others by way of a photo booth.
Elephant in the Room provided the opportunity for some students with mental illnesses to find solidarity through representation. For others, the event was an opportunity to support their peers and gain understanding. According to third-year economics student Johnny Skinner, “it was really thought-provoking and helped me understand that you never know what someone is going through.”
Disclaimer: Hanna Longard is a member of Change Your Mind and an organizer of the Elephamt in the Room event.