Columnist discovers solidarity in mental health narratives

The above installation can be found in the College Center. Focusing on mental health in the Vassar community, the display features photos of participants ranging from students to professors to coaches, accompanied by text written in their own words. Courtesy of Samantha Hoher

I am starting this article with an extended trigger warning. Mental health is something that you owe yourself to take seriously. If you feel like you can’t get out of your head, or that you cannot find peace with whatever pain you’re holding on to, please call these numbers or reach out to the resources available on campus. Students can contact the mental health professional on call at 845-457-7333 by asking to speak with a counselor. Everyone (including students) can call the Dutchess County Helpline at 845-485-9700—they are available 24/7, 365. The National Suicide Prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. And the JED textline can be accessed by texting “START” to 741-741.

Maintaining mental health is one of the largest challenges that many of us at Vassar grapple with. From balancing workloads to handling the harrowing experience of growing older, we all confront mental health in our own ways. As students, this reality is almost impossible to ignore. But it is harder to recognize that mental health extends beyond our bubble and into the community at large.

Hanging in the hallway above the computer store is a display entitled “A Work in Progress.” An earlier draft of this piece called this an exhibit, but that is the wrong word: An exhibit is a one-way relationship, where the viewer consumes whatever is before them. Here is a display in which a group of 18 people describe their journey in their own words, adding to Vassar’s community story. This installation consists of pictures of people, taken in collaboration with Phocus, with their own words next to them. Cassie Jain ’20, Jackson Hardin ’19 and Haley Kardek ’19 deserve praise for this tremendous work.

“A Work in Progress” was organized by Administrative Fellow in the Office of Health Promotion and Education Sam Hoher ’17. Work for the project started last semester, but the idea had been brewing in Hoher’s head for some time. Like myself, she was a student that struggled with mental health while she was at Vassar. Also like myself, she found a vibrant community to lean on. “We have such a supporting community,” she explained, and I have to agree.

An installation like this where so many honest stories can be shared so openly speaks to a reality that we can all relate to on this campus. Hoher found support from one of her professors who openly talked about their therapy routines during office hours. She described it succinctly in our interview. “Wow,” she recalled thinking, “I’m not alone.”

Those participating in the exhibit shared this sentiment. During its opening reception, Professor of Psychology Randy Cornelius was surprised to read through the stories. He stated, “It’s surprising seeing how what I reflect on, others have experienced.” And, if you’re like me, this might be a surprising thing to hear from a professor. Vassar might be an open community when it comes to mental health, but it is still imperfect. There are flaws here—flaws that this display addresses.

Towering above these imperfections are the ones that separate us from one another. Out of the 18 people participating in this project, only half are students. Two are professors and seven are administrators. The point should be clear: The negotiation between ourselves and our psyches is something that connects all of us, regardless of our status on campus.

And indeed, this should produce some feelings of discomfort. Everyone here shares extremely personal stories that are filled with considerable pain. Going through these stories isn’t necessarily pleasant, but it is affirming. One valuable thing students can learn is that there is no boundary between youth and maturity, only shades and gradients.

One administrator I interviewed, Director of the LGBTQ Center and the Women’s Center Danushi Fernando, inspired these sentiments. Fernando explained, “I wanted students to recognize that this is something I’ve been working on for a while.” This comment ties quite nicely into the title of the project. No one on display here has reached a level of transcendence. No one ever defeats their mental health struggles. This isn’t something to be conquered. Indeed, none of the stories even allude to such a sentiment.
But one thing all participants seem to agree on is a sense of growth and of recognition. “I am greater than my biggest fears, my anxiety, my busy mind,” writes men’s volleyball Head Coach Richard Gary. Assistant Director of the Office for Accessibility and Educational Opportunity Zack Batchelder shares, “My depression is its own journey, but my journey is not defined by my depression.” Cassie Cauwels ’22 declares, “I am worth positivity.”

The installation is on display until May 6. “A Work in Progress” is located above Express. Take the stairs and turn right; you can’t miss the photos. These portraits are equal parts intimate and inviting. I implore you to experience this display while it is still up, and to fight the stigma against mental health.

There is no shame in reaching out to those around you in a healthy manner. We’re all in this together, and people are here to help you with whatever you need. You are worth being heard. The Listening Center has extended hours for this hectic time of year. Or, if the pain you have is scarred over and hidden by your daily routines, maybe just hearing others’ stories will help you connect with what you need to hear.

[Correction (April 26, 2019): An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of one of the subjects. It is Cassie Cauwels, not “Cauwel.” In addition, seven administrators participated in the project, not faculty.]

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