Student brings mental health awareness to Emerson

by Jenni Leahy / Beacon Correspondent • April 4, 2013

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Freshman Ashley Cunningham started the branch of Active Minds at Emerson College this fall.
Freshman Ashley Cunningham started the branch of Active Minds at Emerson College this fall.

The subject of mental illness at Emerson College is taboo, according to freshman Ashley Cunningham, who was inspired to begin an Emerson chapter of Active Minds. While walking around the organization fair at the beginning of this year, she realized no club at Emerson addressed the issue.

“I went to the org fair, like all freshmen do, and I stopped by the counseling booth because mental health is something that I really am passionate about, and have been ever since high school,” said the marketing communication major. “I saw a lot of people silenced in their struggle with mental illness. You shouldn’t have to suffer alone.”

She said the counseling office informed her that there wasn’t an outlet to get involved with mental health advocacy, but Cunningham said that she was told about Active Minds, and that she could begin a chapter.

Active Minds was founded 10 years ago by a student at the University of Pennsylvania after her brother committed suicide, and she realized there was no outlet of support for college students with mental health issues. Cunningham said that it was created to get rid of the stigma attached to mental disorders, designed to give people the confidence to get help before it is too late. There are now over 350 chapters of Active Minds.

“The entire point of everything we do is to say that nothing is a phase, no one is putting on an act,” said Cunningham. “Mental illness is a problem, just like any physical problem. If you have a broken leg, you can’t ignore it, you need to get help.”

Emerson’s Active Minds currently has 15 to 20 members. It has participated in three national campaigns this year, including a National Day Without Stigma. For the event, the group created an art therapy session and put an installation of art in the library for two weeks, called ‘Words of Encouragement’.

According to Cunningham, the club’s main focus has been to table and try to make as many students as possible aware of common misconceptions about mental health.

“The ultimate goal is to take the already socially aware campus that we have, and make students realize that even though we are open-minded, you still hear things like, ‘Oh yeah, she is so bipolar.’ I hear a suicide joke daily,” said Cunningham. “I want to destroy that language. People aren’t aware how hurtful words can be.”

Advocacy and awareness is most effective when people have access to free resources and events, said Cunningham. Unfortunately, free events cost money for the organization, and when an organization has no funding, things get difficult, according to the Head of Marketing for Active Minds Alexandra Schmelzle, a junior writing, literature, and publishing major. The club has struggled to afford its events; even printing in color is out of its budget, forcing the group to look for cosponsors.

Cunningham has to cover the club’s finances with her own money — the only fundraising the club has done is selling students brownies. The sale only raised $70, according to Cunningham and unfortunately, a lot of the money was used to pay for the supplies to make the brownies. Cunningham said that the fundraising is a one-woman team, and takes too much time and effort but doesn’t yield much profit.

“Right now, Active Minds is being funded out of my own pocket, which is taxing,” said Cunningham. “I didn’t even realize when I took on founding this organization how much of a time commitment it was, but it truly is. It has become my life. I am talking about mental illness all the time, which doesn’t bother me. I love it.”

Emerson’s Active Minds has now appealed to the Student Government Association twice looking for recognition and $250. It was rejected both times. According to Schmelze, the SGA felt that Active Minds was redundant, believing the group did the same thing as Emerson’s counseling office.

“Next year is kind of up in the air,” said Schmelzle. “Active Minds, the national organization, requires you to be recognized and funded by your college to continue to exist ... If we don’t have recognition by the end of the semester, we risk losing all the progress we’ve made with the national organization.”

According to the rules of Active Minds, members are in no way allowed to replace the role of a therapist. Schmelzle said that it is a common misconception, but the people of Active Minds are there to create a sense of community on campus so that if people feel that they need mental help, they will not be afraid of being judged by their peers.

“There is so much to mental illness, but no matter what you have, I feel like it is all treated the same, and all treated like it is bad. People shouldn’t be judged for seeking the help they obviously need.”