Vulnerability: Oxy From the Inside advocates for mental health awareness

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The organizers for Oxy From the Inside (from left), Allison Powers (junior), Vivian Vuong (senior), Thomas Egan (senior) and Robin Pounders (junior) open the event in Choi Auditorium at Occidental College in Los Angeles on April 17, 2018. Spruce Bohen/The Occidental.

Occidental’s Active Minds chapter hosted Oxy From The Inside (OFTI) April 17 in Choi Auditorium. The Occidental Athletics Department, the Green Bean, Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) and Emmons Wellness Center cosponsored the event. Active Minds e-board member Robin Pounders (junior) organized the event with the help of members Ruby Koontz (senior) and Thomas Egan (senior). This was the third OFTI in four years, according to the program.

The OFTI organizers sought to destigmatize mental health through vulnerability, according to Egan during the opening statement of the event. The event featured nine student speakers who shared their mental health journeys with a student audience. In an email sent to the faculty and staff of Occidental from the Active Minds e-board, they intentionally curated a smaller crowd due to the vulnerability of the speakers.

“[We] decided to limit the event audience to students because the stigmatization of mental illness has been tied to power and control, and we do not want any of our speakers to feel uneasy in the presence of someone who might hold over them some level of power and control,” the e-board members said via email.

Active Minds is a national nonprofit with student-led chapters on college campuses throughout the U.S. and Canada that works to raise mental health awareness among college students. Active Minds Co-President Allison Powers (junior) said that in past years the club struggled to recruit speakers for OFTI, but this year many speakers wanted to share their stories. Active Minds asked several students to return next year so the event would not run too long.

A slide from Theresa Edward’s (senior) talk during Oxy From the Inside (OFTI) in Choi Auditorium at Occidental College in Los Angeles on April 17, 2018. The event sought to embrace vulnerability and destigmatize mental health by giving voice and space to students and their stories. Spruce Bohen/The Occidental.

Powers explained that there is often pressure on people who have dealt with mental health difficulties to reach a sudden turning point and become a shining beacon of mental health inspiration. To challenge this narrative, the leaders of Active Minds encouraged the speakers to be honest about the reality of their experiences.

“Our speakers demonstrated beautifully that the process of healing is never that easy: it’s messy, sad, discouraging, but the good moments are so, so good. This event was not designed to preach wellness or offer solutions, but was incredibly inspiring in its own right,” Powers said.

The student presentations ranged from PowerPoint presentations to spoken stories. The topics of the presentations included issues such as suicidal ideation, eating disorders, anxiety, sexual assault, depression and self-harm.

One speaker, Theresa Edwards (senior), said that it felt liberating for her to speak out openly about something she had hidden for so long.

“OFTI means a lot to me personally. My anxiety and depression has significantly shaped my college experience; even though I was really involved on campus for much of my time here, I felt incredibly alone. OFTI helped me realize that I wasn’t the only person struggling, and it pushed me to reach out for help,” Edwards said.

Disability Services Coordinator Luci Masredjian acknowledged that there are obstacles that prevent certain students from opening up about their experiences with mental health more than others.

“Students’ willingness to discuss their mental health struggles often vary based on their identities. It’s noteworthy that students of color, male students and students from cultures in which mental illness is stigmatized still come in to seek support less often. At the Dean of Students Office and Emmons, we’re continually discussing ways we can break down barriers for these students. Even though barriers still exist, of the 18 percent of our current student body who are registered with accommodations, the largest percentage is made up of students with diagnosed psychological disabilities (42 percent). That’s up 8 percent since last year,” Masredjian said.

Vivian Vuong (senior), co-president of Active Minds, recognized the role of diversity in the conversation about mental health.

“People of different genders, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations came to share their mental health experience, which signifies that everyone experiences mental health struggles, and it’s even more important to continue our discussion on this topic,” Vuong said.

Paul Charbonneau (junior), spoke at the event and addressed the stigma for men struggling with mental health.

“I was really happy Active Minds could give me the platform to speak as a male in the mental health sphere. I feel honored so many people found my story to be powerful, and that it resonated with them. It was hard for me to openly admit I had a problem originally due to the pressures put on males to internalize their struggles, much less share to an audience full of people,” Charbonneau said.

Micaela Stevens (senior), another student speaker, expressed how sharing her story at OFTI was especially empowering and cathartic, even though she said that she usually strives to be open about her struggles with mental health.

“I feel very grateful to Active Minds for putting this event on and for all the work they do for the Oxy community. It’s so remarkable to me how stigmatized mental illness is when it’s something that so many of us deal with, and I hope that this event helped lessen that stigma a little bit,” Stevens said.