Going off to college was both exciting and terrifying. A part of me was ready to experience somewhere other than my small town in New Jersey. But, another part of me was so overwhelmed by the idea of change. And having been recently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I was worried about how overwhelming this change would be. And it was for a while. But then I bonded with people on my floor, found interest in courses I was taking, and fell in love with the beauty of Syracuse’s campus. But it wasn’t until I joined the Active Minds chapter at my college that I began to feel college could be a home away from home. Because for me, home was a place I could be myself.
I found compassion at the first general body meeting I went to for Active Minds. Each member of the executive board talked so openly, vulnerably, and passionately about mental health. It was something so new to me. I remember being in awe of these individuals that were making real change on campus and not doing it for credit but to better the community. I began writing for the chapter’s blog. Writing made it easier to express what I was feeling. As I became more involved in the chapter, I found not only another layer to college I didn’t know before; but a layer to myself.
We opened each e-board meeting with highs and lows. Everyone would go around the table and talk about the good and bad of their week. It was so simple yet so profoundly different than asking, “How are you?” This practice reminded us that even in our hard times, there is light to be found. And it also bonded us. We became our own family. When a member graduated, we were both sad to see them go but proud of not only what they accomplished at Syracuse but all the good they would do in the world. There is no doubt that the events we held, relationships we established with administrators, and changes we made on campus were impactful. Events like Send Silence Packing or Mental Health Awareness Week were moments where I thought, “I am a part of something bigger than myself.”
But as I look back at my time in Active Minds, I think more about what it gave me than what I gave it. Being president of my Active Minds chapter was an honor. But while navigating this leadership role, I was also navigating my own mental health issues. My first semester as president was also when my anxiety worsened. But because of Active Minds, I knew what steps to take to get help. I began going to the counseling center and prioritizing self-care such as yoga and writing. I talked to professors about my struggles and opened up to close friends about what I was going through. Most of the time, I discovered that by talking about my mental health, it allowed a friend to be vulnerable as well. Active Minds taught me not only how to be a mental health advocate for others through resources, interactions, and training; but to be one for myself.
My senior year of college, I returned to campus two months after my brother passed away. Saying it was hard would be an understatement. In all honesty, I didn’t think I would graduate. My mental health deteriorated significantly. I didn’t know how to get through the day, let alone study for exams, socialize with friends, and run a student organization. I remember saying to my therapist, “I feel like a hypocrite telling others to prioritize their mental health when I barely have it together.” For months, I took a break from Active Minds to focus on my well-being. It wasn’t just my personal change that was overwhelming, but we had a new advisor, and half of our e-board graduated the year before. I had to find a new support system. But I did. One of my best friends offered to join our e-board even as she had other commitments. I reached out to the Student Association President, and she gave me two names of people who would take on roles. I then opened up to our new advisor, telling her how I might need more help this year, and she checked in regularly with me.
My entire team was patient, kind, and understanding towards me. They reminded me that my mental health was more important than any of my obligations. And they proved that Active Minds was always about the people. I learned through my peers how to be there for others by how they were there for me. I learned how to utilize resources both on and off campus for myself and others. I learned how to talk about my mental health without feeling ashamed but instead empowered. It is not easy to live with a mental illness, but I am learning more about how not to just live with it but thrive. Holding a leadership position within our chapter during hard times showed me my own strength and reminded me that I do not need to have it all sorted out to make a difference. The thing with grief is that you do not just lose your person; you lose yourself. But being a part of Active Minds amidst my loss gave me back a piece of myself that I will forever be grateful for.