Sitting in a circle holding cups of coffee and powdered donuts on napkins in their hands, students from different cultural, racial and gender identities shared their struggles with mental illness.
The group of about 20 was gathered in a conference room on the fifth floor of the William Pitt Union Thursday afternoon to talk about their personal experiences with mental illness. The Campus Women’s Organization hosted the Mental Health and Oppression discussion, an informal talk geared toward Pitt students struggling with mental illness in the context of minority groups and the LGBTQ+ community.
Members wanted to keep their discussion confidential but generally shared their experiences dealing with mental health and illness, family, race, seeking treatment on campus and learning to be better advocates for mental health.
After seeing minority students and CWO members face the trauma of sexual assault, major depressive disorder and anxiety, CWO President Abigail Meinen and other members saw a need for thoughtful conversation in a safe space.
“We wanted to take care of our own, take care of the people in our organization,” Meinen, a senior English major, said. “We wanted to know what we could be doing to better support our members and students [at Pitt].”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 77.1 percent of adults with mental illnesses identify as something other than white.
In addition, LGBTQ+ youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide compared to heterosexual youth, according to NAMI.
CWO establishes a theme every year for their organization, and this year’s theme is Pittsburgh and problems in the local community. The organization also started a mental health campaign in order to provide better support for students.
“We’re looking at ways we can better support each other. We’re also hoping to bring a speaker on mental illness,” Meinen said.
Meinen saw Thursday evening’s talk as a chance to recognize the role that intersectionality plays in mental health struggles and as an opportunity to integrate the concerns expressed into future CWO events.
“One of the main things CWO is addressing are the mental health problems we’ve seen in many members coming to us and the challenges they faced,” Meinen said.
Kate Eldridge, a sophomore psychology and anthropology double major, serves as the CWO’s political action co-chair and helped organize the talk.
“We wanted to have a more casual conversation where people feel comfortable, eat food and chill,” Eldridge said. “We know our members have had a lot of personal experiences with mental health problems in college.”
CWO reached out to various groups on campus, including Rainbow Alliance and Active Minds, in an attempt to include diverse experiences, according to Eldridge. Students from both of those groups attended and participated in the discussion.
Despite this, CWO board members thought it was relevant due to Pitt’s current mental health issues, such as the current absence of a psychiatrist on campus.
Although Pitt’s Counseling Center previously had two psychiatrists on staff to work with students, one retired in May, and the other left on Oct. 21, leaving the center without any psychiatrists. When a Pitt student circulated an online petition asking that a replacement be found as soon as possible, nearly 600 people signed on.
The University is currently recruiting to fill the vacancies. It began recruiting in May when the first psychiatrist retired.
Evelyn Zamora-Vargas, a first-year who plans to double major in psychology and philosophy, attended the talk Thursday in an effort to learn more about not only mental illness but also how being a part of a minority group factors into individuals’ struggle with mental health.
“I have a family member who has a mental illness and want to be better educated on the matter,” Zamora-Vargas said. “It’s also for my own personal life [because] I’m Cuban.”
Carrie Weeks, a junior linguistics major with a history of mental illness, also felt a personal connection to the conversations students were having Thursday.
“It was a very personal and cathartic discussion,” Weeks said. “I’m glad that people felt comfortable enough to talk about their personal lives.”