A version of this article originally appeared in New Voices.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a worrier. As a perfectionist, everything felt dire. There’s a running joke this means I’m Jewish, but I’ve learned it’s anxiety.
When I arrived at the University of Florida in 2011, I was unsure about everything. But thankfully, I became involved at UF Hillel from the moment I stepped foot on campus, looking for like-minded people to help me feel comfortable. A new friend encouraged me to attend a support group at the Disability Resource Center (DRC) on campus, after watching me stress throughout midterms. I was hesitant, but she promised that I’d meet other worriers. And I did. The experience was liberating.
For the first time, I could be open about my struggles and as a result, felt less alone. There were other students like me. I wanted everyone to have that experience. From then on, the DRC was typically part of the solution I offered to any friend in distress. My peers were surprised to hear that suggestion, because they were unaware of it. Even on the rare occasion that they knew of the DRC, they were reluctant to use it.
Later in 2012, a student on campus committed suicide. Now I knew I needed to do something. It was unacceptable that students were uninformed about how to get help when they felt anxious, depressed, stressed or not quite like themselves. I presented a business plan to the dean of students that outlined a campus-wide campaign called “Stronger Than Stigma” to raise awareness about campus resources. That idea was rejected. I would have to find another way.
Meanwhile, I registered for UF Hillel’s Birthright Israel summer 2013 trip. In Israel, I made the friends who became my business partners. Birthright created the perfect space for us to connect on a deeper, more spiritual level. As we stood in the airport hugging at the end of the trip, I told them I had “this idea…” and they said, “Yes.”
Before classes started again, Stronger Than Stigma, Inc. (STS) was incorporated as a Florida nonprofit. We launched our mission — to empower, inspire and support college students and young professionals struggling with mental health issues.
We created an online presence. One connection led to the next, and pretty soon, we had global followers and people asking how to get involved. We were ready to launch a real-life support network at UF, and we turned to Hillel. It felt natural reaching out for support. In 2014, Hillel provided us with free meeting space.
Student involvement has grown to the point that despite our newness, student government approached us in the fall to create the first mental health awareness week in UF history. The UF chapter is thriving under its student board. STS has received inquiries from other Florida schools to establish chapters on their campuses. And our social media sites continue to attract followers from around the globe. A week after graduation in 2015, the IRS letter arrived approving our status, and I committed to work as the executive director right out of school.
It took collaboration to get this movement off the ground, but you as an individual and member of a campus community have your own unique power to bring awareness to mental health. If you suspect that you yourself or someone you care about is struggling, recognize that you’re not alone. What you’re experiencing could be a symptom of a disease, not a flaw or weakness in your character. Take a deep breath, take a step back, try not to panic, and most importantly: Do not judge. You’re not weird and you’re not weak. There are professionals out there who can help you. Do not give up hope and do not deny yourself the help you need. The best thing you can do is talk about it. Tell a trusted friend or mentor on campus. Track down the resources available to you on your campus and make an appointment. Then pat yourself on the back –- these are huge steps on your road to good self-care and balanced mental health.
If a friend comes to you in their time of need, listen. Don’t try to “cure” them; don’t try to “talk them out of it.” You cannot talk someone out of Diabetes or a broken leg, so don’t attempt the impossible with mental health issues. Your role as the friend is to be there, not to judge, but to accept and to love. On a community level, ask your Hillel or other student hubs to publicize where students in distress can turn for help on campus.
On a personal, day-to-day level, don’t shy away from these topics. If you find an article online that discusses depression and it speaks to you, re-post it. Use your social media platforms to help spread awareness. By showing solidarity with the cause, you will inspire others to reach out for the help they need. Never underestimate your power to make a difference. Your smile can totally change someone else’s bleak day. This simple act of acknowledgement can help break the isolation felt by those struggling. Anything you can do to make a sufferer feel less alone is not only a mitzvah in passing, but also, it could help save a life. I know it helped change mine.