On a warm Tuesday evening, five undergraduates openly shared their struggles with mental illness — from depression to bipolar disorder and eating disorders — to an audience of roughly 100 students gathered in Sudler Hall.
The five students spoke on the panel “Faces of Mental Illness,” an event organized by the mental health advocacy group Mind Matters for the second time since the inaugural panel took place two years ago. Organizers said this year’s panel attracted a larger audience than the previous ones, likely due to the growing awareness of mental health issues as well as recent campus discussions that have highlighted the need for better mental health resources. The event placed emphasis on destigmatizing mental illnesses and putting faces to mental health struggles to humanize such challenges. Both panelists and organizers said they hope attendees left the event feeling empowered to share their own stories and cope with difficulties in their personal lives.
“When you’re in the midst of mental illness, it’s very much like you’re in a persistent yarn ball: You don’t know what strings to pull to get out, and it feels like you’re stuck in that yarn ball forever,” Katelyn Kang ’16, a panelist who shared her experiences with depression, told the News after the event. “But the reality is that it passes, it always passes. The worst point always passes. Just seeing us here unashamed of sharing our stories and all [of us being] successful in our own ways — I hope that’s an inspiration to other people not to be discouraged and ashamed of [their mental illness].”
Mind Matters co-presidents Eli Feldman ’16 and Audrey Luo ’17 opened “Faces of Mental Illness” with a remark on the positive reception of the event. Two years ago, the panel attracted barely 40 people, Feldman said. The crowded room on Tuesday night speaks to how far the community has come in terms of mental health awareness, he added at the beginning of the event. Then, the five panelists — Kang, Alex Borsa ’16, Clement Dupuy ’18, Jackee Schess ’18 and one student who asked to remain anonymous — each took a turn at sharing their personal experiences.
Borsa, a communication and consent educator on campus who was diagnosed with depression during the winter break of his sophomore year, spoke of the challenges he faced in first identifying and then managing his condition.
Borsa said that he began to see a therapist at Yale’s Mental Health and Counseling during his freshman year and that this proved helpful to him before he was diagnosed. He added that after his diagnosis he began to stop seeing medication as a “failure” but instead as “saving [himself].” He also described his decision to go off medication at the beginning of this academic year as a “scary ride.”
Dupuy, who has bipolar disorder, said that during his freshman year, his moods varied between feeling very low and self-critical to experiencing periods of intense euphoria. He began to use marijuana to calm himself during periods of high energy and LSD to boost himself at points when he felt particularly low.
Schess, who is also treasurer for Mind Matters, told the audience that she suffers from both juvenile idiopathic arthritis and depression. She spoke about the difficulties associated with the intersection of physical and mental conditions. For example, she said her arthritis precluded her from coping mechanisms which involved physical activity, including playing the guitar.
One of the panelists, who asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of her experience, spoke about her struggle with an eating disorder, which led her to withdraw from Yale for two academic years.
The student said that because she was afraid of gaining weight during her freshman year and felt she would exercise less in college, she decided to eat less at Yale. She added that as a result, she lost 40 pounds by the end of her first semester and was hospitalized during winter break.
The panelist decided to return to Yale the following semester and again for her sophomore year, when her disorder degenerated until she was forced to take time off.
Returning to Yale after spending two years away was difficult, she said, since her original classmates had already graduated. Still, the panelist said her participation in new extracurricular activities this year has resulted in a very positive experience.
Kang, who also experiences depression, said her boyfriend provided support during her time at Yale, describing his encouragement that she receive treatment as “insistent but not overbearing.” She added that after she began taking medication for her depression she found herself with a much improved “baseline” level of happiness than before.
During the question-and-answer session that followed the panel discussion, Feldman and Luo asked panelists to share helpful tips that guided them through their recovery process or in their interactions with peers. Feldman told the News afterwards that one part of the event was about destigmatization, while another part focused on giving the audience tangible steps they could take in their own lives.
Kang said that the key to her recovery was her practice of mentally congratulating herself for taking small steps, such as getting herself out of bed each morning.
Nine attendees interviewed said they thought it was important to hear about their peers’ experiences with mental health challenges and said they took away important lessons from the panelists.
Michael Berry ’17, the incoming communications coordinator for Mind Matters, said it is critical to destigmatize and raise awareness of mental illnesses on campus. It is not always obvious when someone suffers from them, he said.
Dae Hee Ahn, MUS ’15 said she has friends who are struggling with mental health challenges, and she is not always sure how she can help.
“I learned a lot about patience and believing today,” she said. “It’s important to not give up and just be there as a friend.”
The number and diversity of attendees reflected a positive shift in the Yale community regarding mental health awareness, Feldman said.
“I do think that Yale is at a very different place with regard to mental health than it was two years ago. For the most part, [the change] is for the better,” Feldman said. “People are no longer as uncomfortable just discussing the topic compared to my freshman and sophomore years.”
In response to calls for mental health reform, Yale Mental Health & Counseling increased its clinical staff by 2.5 full-time equivalent employees last fall.