Speak Your Mind: Bring Awareness to Your Campus

Kelly Madden
Kelly Madden


What is Speak Your Mind (SYM) Panel?

The SYM Panel was first created in 2010 by the Ithaca College chapter of Active Minds. It’s goal – that of Active Minds – is to change the conversation around mental health by using student’s personal stories to raise awareness around mental illness. This unique platform aims to educate students through direct interaction with their peers, and encourages attendees to ask questions about mental health in a completely judgement-free and safe environment. The hope is the conversation continues beyond the classroom and throughout their college careers. Panels are usually comprised of 2-5 students and one moderator who have undergone training to ensure the safety, appropriateness, and health of all panelists.

What are the goals of a SYM Panel?

  • Educate others on the effects of mental illness. All can benefit from this, including students, staff, faculty, and community members. SYM panels are not limited to the classroom setting. In fact, Ithaca College hosts just as many community panels as we do campus ones!
  • Raise awareness about mental health issues on college campuses and how they might impact the lives of students. College is a unique time for many students and on top of that, young-adults are still mastering their own identity and emotional regulation. By sharing our lived experiences, we can bring our campus-community together and magnify struggles surrounding mental illness.
  • Advocate for individuals struggling with mental illness who may not have a voice right now. There will always be someone struggling and we must harness the power to be a voice for the unseen, and help individuals seek treatment. 

Steps for Creating a SYM Panel

  1. Designate one or more members of your Active Minds chapter to head up this effort. Start by explaining SYM and ask if anyone is interested in becoming the assigned SYM organizer/coordinator! Make sure to note this role has additional responsibilities beyond a regular general-body member of a chapter. This post can be used as inspiration for you and your team!
  2. Next, you’ll want to educate general-body campus-community members about SYM. Explain how it could potentially benefit their classes, clubs, sports-teams, orchestra rehearsals, and workplaces by hearing students share their lived experiences. 
  3. Reach out and start building your panelist pool by using available campus resources. In the past, our chapter has gone to psychology, sociology, and other humanities classes to recruit people who are comfortable sharing their stories. You’d be surprised about the number of people who are interested.
  4. After you’ve started to briefly recruit fellow stigma-stompers, start creating your listserv. In our chapter, we have a google spreadsheet with panelist’s emails, Facebooks, and cellphone numbers. We also have a Facebook group where we post sign-ups for future panels.This will act as a directory for future panelists, and it’ll make your life a little easier!
  5. Now it’s time to present your panel and build the program! Always keep in mind that SYM is not specific to only psychology or social work-related classes; however, our chapter finds it easiest to promote both paneling and recruitment in these classes because students have values and interests that align with Active Minds. Feel free to branch out and approach your campus’ health, fitness, and counseling centers, and beyond for help promoting SYM. You should also reach out to any professors, advisors, faculty, and staff that you feel comfortable asking about setting up a panel in their classes. This would also be a great opportunity to panel for any classes focused around public-speaking!
  6. Make sure to check in with panelists before and after the panels. This is to ensure that their mental health and well-being are still intact after story-sharing time. I have been paneling for most of my four years of college, and I am still easily fatigued from just one hour long panel! It’s best to rotate panelists on a weekly or monthly basis to spread-out the presentation time. Always remember, it’s okay to ask panelists to step down if they are struggling, being inappropriate, or continuously late or missing times that they’ve signed up to speak. 

How do I train SYM panelists and potential moderators?

Now comes the most important piece of this whole process – training panelists and moderators! To ensure the well-being of both moderators and panelists, it’s important that at least one week’s worth of training happens before students are ready to take on this role.

  • A Moderator is someone who will facilitate and set the one for the panel discussion.  This should be a fellow student who will share the rules, guidelines, and moderate discussion amongst class members during the panel. The moderator reserves the right to interrupt any panelist and/or audience member at any time to ensure that the classroom is a safe-space and that appropriate information is being conveyed. Moderators only participate in the panels to help narrate the conversation, they usually do not also participate but are welcome to do both if they’re comfortable doing so. In our chapter, moderators read a stream-lined guide that includes, rules, trigger warnings, and any other information pertinent to the discussion.  (Please email icactiveminds@gmail.com to receive training materials) .
  • A panelist is any student willing to share their lived experience with mental illness, especially through the lens of a college student. After panelists have been recruited, the training process begins. Panelists are required to write down their story in regards to their journey with mental illness. Stories should be about 1-1.5 pages (2-4 minutes long) and panelists should practice reciting them (please email us at icactiveminds@gmail.com to access training materials and examples). Stories should never include names, graphic details pertaining to self-harm, or any other medical information. This is for your own health and protection!  It’s the SYM panel coordinator’s job to censor these stories and make sure there is no harmful content. After the panelist and coordinator have reviewed the story together and they’ve recited it once, they are now free to sign-up for a panel on campus! 

Last minute tips/advice

Here are some closing tips and tricks to guarantee that your chapter gets the most out of organizing Speak Your Mind panels:

  • Consider charging professor’s departments for the panel. At Ithaca College, we charge around $20-$25 per panel per class. This will ensure a little extra cash for your chapter!
  • As a prospective SYM coordinator or even as an advisor to your local chapter, make sure to practice with your panelists and moderators! Even if they’re comfortable in public-speaking settings, it can be overwhelming and emotional to share one’s journey with mental illness.
  • Host as many panels as you feel comfortable. A majority of our panels serve as recruitment opportunities. In fact, I joined Active Minds because I saw a panel!
  • Don’t be afraid to host community panels. These can be open dialogues with mental health advocates in your community, where anyone is invited to attend. In our chapter, we’ve hosted open SYM panels around eating disorders, death by suicide and prevention, along with mental health resources in general.

Any event in which stories about mental health are shared has the possibility of moving people to care more about mental illness and moves them towards action . Always be prepared to give peers a way to act, and the perfect way to do that is by joining Active Minds. Personal stories can sometimes be overwhelming, but by sharing yours and facilitating others, you can become an agent of change on your campus.

If you’re interested in creating and coordinating SYM panels on your campus, please email us at icactiveminds@gmail.com so we can share our training resources with you.