How did NAMI come into being? What was that catalyst that made you start this organization?
I recently completed my first year at Duke University. And, just as it is for many freshmen, the first year of college was, in fact, an extraordinary and exciting experience. But it was also extremely difficult, tiresome, and anxiety-ridden. The environment coupled with personal circumstances left me fighting to maintain my mental health.
Last December, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type I, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Panic Disorder.
I felt ashamed openly speaking about my struggles until a week into my sophomore year, when I spontaneously decided to share my personal story with a 15,000-person audience. I composed my story, quickly posted it on the ‘All Duke’ Facebook page, and sat in my Neuroscience course for the next hour terrified, trembling and catastrophizing. But, within hours of revealing my well-hidden story of mental illness, I received gestures of support from thousands of members within the Duke community and had hundreds of peers bravely messaging me with stories very similar to my own. Some spoke of their struggles with anxiety and depression, while others mentioned their fight with Dissociative Identity Disorder, Bipolar and Schizophrenia. But every student mentioned their struggle in overcoming the stigma that pervades mental illness.
Within weeks of posting my personal story, NAMI was founded and grew rapidly. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI at Duke is an on-campus branch of the national organization and was recognized by Duke University as an official undergraduate organization as of late September of Fall 2015. In the brief period since official recognition, NAMI at Duke has rapidly grown to more than 600 members, nearly 100 executive officers and has been lauded in the Huffington Post for organizing several impactful events focused on overcoming the stigma associated with mental illness at Duke University. NAMI at Duke members and officers now fervently work on over 45 key projects to benefit the mental health of its affiliated undergraduate community.
How are students and others on campus reacting to the organization’s efforts?
Today, after a year of endless therapy and medications, I have succeeded in overcoming many of the hardships I faced throughout my first year of college. Although I personally have reached a point where I can manage my illness, I’m aware that others in similar situations have struggled in silence for several years and continue to do so. Unfortunately, this stigma associated with mental illness is not exclusive to Duke’s community. Today, mental illness is one of the most pervasive issues afflicting college students. Even so, it is seldom discussed.
It has been extraordinary how the Duke community has responded to the introduction of a new mental health community. The student body and greater Duke community has demonstrated extraordinary interest and involvement in the work that we contribute on campus. Students, faculty, and administration have all come together to facilitate conversations on mental health, to establish more prominent support groups on campus, and to introduce additional resources on campus to support anyone struggling with mental illness. And it has been amazing to see peers come together in support of mental health and in support of each other. Within months of being founded, NAMI at Duke has grown rapidly and has been nominated as an “Up and Coming Group” on campus twice.
The stigma around mental illness has been lessening, but is far from gone. Is the stigma of mental illness the largest issue the organization has to overcome? How are you working toward that goal?
Although the mental health climate has certainly improved with ongoing effort, the stigma surrounding mental illness is still very present. Today, 1 in 4 college students struggle with some form of mental illness. As a result, tackling the stigma associated with mental illness has evolved into one of NAMI at Duke's core missions, and several of our most important projects, events and fundraisers have been founded on the specific goal of overcoming stigma. Nevertheless, we simultaneously have also focused on other mental-health related areas such as education and advocacy.
In the past semester and a half, we have had the opportunity to collaborate with numerous different organizations and departments on campus. Namely, we have worked closely with student groups including Sophomore Class Council, Duke Student Government, and Me Too Monologues and others. But, we also have had the chance to work alongside other NAMI-on-campus chapters in North Carolina, Duke Medicine, CAPS and even non-profits in the local area.
Although we work on numerous different projects throughout the year, a lot of our efforts materialize during the Mental Health Awareness Week that we organize each semester.
This past week, NAMI at Duke headed its second Mental Health Awareness Week. Some events that have been organized in the past have included student panels, speakers, and other advocacy-related programs. We have raised awareness by distributing nearly 1,000 Mental Health Awareness Week shirts. We have organized events such as “Donuts for Love” to broaden the conversation on mental health and include the greater Duke population in our efforts. During this event, students write an anonymous supportive letter to a friend in the Duke community, which we deliver to the friend; in exchange, the student receives a free donut for participating. In the past year, NAMI at Duke has distributed over 2,000 donuts and delivered nearly 2,500 letters from peers. Other events organized by NAMI have taken a more policy-oriented approach. In fact, we have worked on surveys to assess the general mental health climate on campus. We have also worked closely with deans and administration to address any mental health-related issues that impact students on campus. Ultimately, though, these are only a few of many projects that we have worked on over the past semester and, in general, most of our events have focused on three core values: education, advocacy, and community.
Where are you now, and where do you hope to take NAMI’s efforts moving forward?
It is unquestionable that the Duke community is taking charge in improving its mental health resources and it also is undeniable that an amazing amount of progress has been made for the mental health community present on campus. The Duke administration has provided amazing ongoing support and our advisors, Professor Rainbo Hultman and Dr. Gary Glass, have been the most extraordinary mentors, advisors and friends.
But, mental health should not be a topic that requires permission and approval to discuss. The progress that our community has made in the past year has certainly been both exceptional and unprecedented, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
The experience I had in sharing my illness lead me to several key realizations. In order to eradicate this culture of silence and catalyze significant change in the realm of mental health, we need to open dialogue. Sparking discussion on mental illness can have a long-lasting and extraordinary impact on increasing education and eliminating the misconceptions that surround mental illness—it definitely has in my small university bubble. I cannot imagine the remarkable amount of change that simple discussion has the potential to invoke in our world. More importantly, I discovered that while misunderstanding and misconceptions do exist and there definitely are those that will criticize, antagonize and stigmatize, I promise that there also are those who care. There assuredly are individuals in our communities that are wiling to give their support. And we, as individuals dealing with mental illnesses, have to fulfill our responsibility by learning to trust those individuals, by learning to confidently share our struggles, and by learning to be proud of our fight.
Over the next year, NAMI aims to continue working towards overcoming the stigma surrounding mental illness, while also making progress towards a more prominent community for students struggling with mental illness.