‘Vulnerability is a strength’: Panelists discuss the importance of conversations about mental health

A+Mental+Health+Awareness+Month+poster+in+the+William+Pitt+Union.

Romita Das | Senior Staff Photographer

A Mental Health Awareness Month poster in the William Pitt Union.

By Abby Cardilli, Staff Writer

While conversations surrounding mental health can be difficult and painful, for Tonya Ingram, part of being a human is sharing and listening to stories.

Ingram, a renowned poet who has performed on stages such as the Getty Museum and Madison Square Garden, said while it can be daunting to open up to others about mental health problems, it is freeing to remind others that they are not alone.

“It is the realization that vulnerability is a strength,” Ingram said. “Whether that is in a room of five people or 5,000 people, the truth is vulnerability.”

Pitt’s Resident Student Association sponsored a hybrid town hall last Wednesday titled “The Strength of a Story: A Conversation of Mental Health and Advocacy.” The event, which is part of Pitt’s Mental Health Awareness Month, explored the importance of self-care and advocacy in mental health conversations and included three guest speakers who shared their experiences with their mental health journeys.

Ingram, a graduate of New York University, said in her childhood, her community rarely talked about mental illness, and they lacked proper terminology. When Ingram began to understand the different facets of mental illness in her first year of college, she said she was already in a deep depressive episode.

“Because we didn’t have the language,” Ingram said. “They didn’t know how to verbalize something was wrong.” 

Brandon Taylor, a 2020 graduate of Pitt’s School of Social Work, said the labels that are attached to mental illness, such as “crazy” and “lazy,” made it difficult to be vulnerable in his own interpersonal relationships.

“You were afraid to talk about it because you did not want to get rejected,” Taylor said. “You didn’t want to lose your friends.”

Similarly, Alkaid Zeng, a senior philosophy and economics major, said the labels attached to both his cultural background and ethnic heritage hindered his mental health progress. Zeng, who grew up in New Zealand, said since his community valued peace and happiness, the community criticized mental health conditions as having no basis. 

“They would say, ‘You have no reason to be sad,’” Zeng said. “‘You live a happy, normal life, why are you sad?’” 

Zeng, who is also of Chinese descent, said due to older cultural norms surrounding mental illness in the Asian community, the community saw being open about struggles with mental health as a weakness.

“It was seen as overreacting,” Zeng said. “Something they would not get.”

Ingram, a Black woman who grew up in the Bronx, said people in her community saw being Black and depressed as an inherent contradiction.

“Depression was seen as for white people, you couldn’t be Black and depressed,” Ingram said. “I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want to be ostracized by my community.”

But as a student at NYU, Ingram found a group of accepting and supportive individuals in her poetry community. For the first time, Ingram could write down her thoughts and feelings in a creative setting and then verbalize it to a group of peers. Ingram said the individuals around her were also transparent about their mental health — putting language to formerly abstract concepts.

“And I was able to be in a community where other people were writing their stories down, and finding healing,” Ingram said. “And that was my first space where I could share what I go through, and I’m not alone.” 

For Zeng, his community in high school also created a healing space for him and others who experienced mental health problems. As a high school student, Zeng was a part of the International Baccalaureate program — an advanced, time-consuming and incredibly stressful initiative for gifted students. Through this program, Zeng and his peers were often under immense pressure, and would average around “three hours of sleep per night.”

But, since his high school prioritized mental health and employed a dedicated set of counselors, Zeng and his fellow students found strength in each other and built a community with shared struggles. Through this community, Zeng could verbalize his issues and feelings with a group of like-minded individuals. 

“And I’m hoping that we all heal from the scars,” Zeng said. “And we make it into something that is more bittersweet than bitter.” 

Taylor, who developed a workshop utilized in different health care professions called “Quick to Judge: Removing the Stigma,”  said an important step in his journey was realizing and correcting his own internalized mental health stigma. Through his work with the local community, Taylor realized that he was operating under the assumption that you can detect a mentally ill person from just their appearance. 

Taylor said he even viewed himself as having “mental health stickers all over him,” that others could see.

“And I perpetuated stigma in regards to myself,” Taylor said. “And that’s really funny considering for about eight years I was fully in the darkness of mental health.”

Taylor has also been involved with trauma-informed care over the last five years — which seeks to shift the focus from deciding what is wrong with an individual, to what has happened to an individual. Taylor said by utilizing the complete story of a person’s life, health care providers can provide effective services with a healing approach.

According to Taylor, trauma-informed care seeks to answer “why” instead of “what.” Through this process, people see individuals as complex human beings with different backgrounds, not a stagnant representation of their mental illness. 

“You assume that they have trauma,” Taylor said. “You treat them with dignity, respect and you care about their progress and safety.”

In conversations about mental health and illness, it is important to recognize that mental illness is not a defining characteristic of all that a person is, according to Taylor. He added that while the mental health journey can seem strenuous, there is light ahead.

“We do talk, we do go into recovery, we do heal,” Taylor said. “We’re still in school, our jobs and we’re going on to achieve our dreams.”

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