Taylor Swankie’s father committed suicide when she was 13 years old. She says most people in her small community of Kitty Hawk had never experienced this before and didn’t know how to talk about it. As a result, people acted uncomfortable around her.
“I found that it’s really hard to discuss that with people,” she says.
“It’s a tragedy, but it happens. And for me, talking about it is a way of therapy.
Swankie, now a freshman pre-pharmacy major at UNC-Chapel Hill, has finally found a group with which she can talk about these issues—her Connected Learning Program, Rethink: Psychiatric Illness.
“I’ve just really enjoyed being a part of a group that is welcoming and willing to talk about things that sometimes you can’t talk about even with your closest friends,” Swankie says. “This group is making people realize that it’s a problem in our society and it should not be ignored.”
Rethink is one of seven projects in the Connected Learning Program, which is run through the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence and Housing and Residential Education. Students in the Connected Learning Program live together on the first floor of Cobb Dormitory and work on a project for an entire school year. Unlike living-learning communities, students apply to be mentors and receive up to $1,000 to fund their initiative in the CLP. Rethink’s group is made up of nine students and led by two student mentors and the program coordinator.
Rethink’s co-mentors, sophomore psychology major Stephanie Nieves-Rios and sophomore journalism major Viviana Bonilla Lopez, both from San Juan, Puerto Rico, were in the Connected Learning Program last year when they decided they wanted to be mentors and applied for funding. They chose to work with mental health issues because, like Swankie, both have personal experience with the subject. Nieves-Rios suffers from depression and Bonilla Lopez has a family member with a mental illness. In fact, one in four Americans is affected by a mental illness, but there’s still very much a stigma attached to it, say Nieves-Rios and Bonilla Lopez.
The group’s main goal is to wipe away misconceptions and start an open conversation about psychiatric illnesses at UNC-CH.
“Among college students, suicide is the second leading cause of death because of untreated depression,” says Bonilla Lopez. “It’s an issue no one would talk about and we wanted to talk about it. There are a lot of misunderstandings and it can be hard to deal with people who don’t (have knowledge of) psychiatric illnesses (when you have a family member who suffers from one).”
Nieves-Rios says the best way to break the stigma and help those with mental illnesses is by educating people and talking about the issue.
Rethink meets weekly to discuss different topics so that the group can be familiar with all types of mental illnesses before they go out and talk to the rest of campus. They have also hosted a few campus-wide events, including a reading by Dr. Randi Davenport, the director of the Johnston Center, who wrote a book about her experience raising a son with both a developmental and a mental illness.
Davenport says she’s very pleased with the work of Rethink.
“They’re incredibly strong students to take on this particular subject matter,” she says. “The value is that they’re raising the profile of mental health issues.”
However, she says that not much has changed with regards to mental health in the past four decades.
“The changes we’ve seen are not enough,” Davenport asserts. “It’s still a taboo subject. People say, ‘You’re so courageous, you’re so brave for speaking openly about this.’ What they’re talking about is the stigma, that’s what makes me brave.”
She says that services for mental illnesses are hard to come by because of the way people see mental illness. For example, Davenport says Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly are willing to fund programs that help those with developmental illnesses because they’re not the fault of the individual. However, the politicians are not as willing to fund mental illness initiatives because they see those illnesses as the individual’s fault.
“First do away with the stigma,” says Davenport, “then the services will follow.”
Rethink’s largest event of the year will be a campus-wide, four-hour skills-training event on March 17 that will seek to inform people about psychiatric illnesses. The event will host speakers who have personal experiences with mental illness, including Swankie, and there will be a panel and interactive discussions.
Nieves-Rios and Bonilla Lopez hope to continue with their efforts to raise awareness for psychiatric illnesses even after their year in the Connected Learning Program ends. Bonilla Lopez says they are in the process of applying for grants and brainstorming other ways to continue with their project, including the possibility of becoming a student organization.
“This has given me the chance to work with something I want to pursue further,” Nieves-Rios says. “It was my first chance to engage the issue and feeling like I’m doing something is empowering. Sometimes it can be frustrating to feel like no one cares, but when one person comes up to me and says they care, it makes it all worth it. It’s important for me to feel that I didn’t just sit by, but I did something.”
Jill Peterfeso, the coordinator of the Connected Learning Program, praises Nieves-Rios and Bonilla Lopez for their work with the project.
“I think their passion for this topic has been evident since the moment I met them,” she says. “They are committed to spreading the word about this. I hope whatever groundwork they lay now can continue even after their CLP (ends).”
Unfortunately, students next fall will not have the same opportunities. Due to budget cuts, the Connected Learning Program has been discontinued.
“It was a very painful day for me seeing as this has been my baby,” Davenport says. “I’ve been working on this since 2002, even before it launched in 2004. It was a very difficult decision for my dean to make and for me to accept.”
Cody Blanton, a freshman from Apex and a member of Rethink, says he was very upset the program was discontinued because he would have liked to be a mentor next year.
“It’s such a great program because you become kind of like family with your group,” he says.
Swankie says she also would have liked to apply to be a mentor next year, but says she had a great experience participating in the program as a freshman.
“It’s a great way for people to interact on more than just a social level,” she says. “It’s about making a commitment and sticking with it for the whole year. Especially as a first-year I think that’s hard; during Fall Fest you don’t know what you’re doing and you sign up for a bunch of things but don’t end up joining.”
Davenport says she is exploring options to have a similar program beginning in the fall of 2013.
“We’re looking into having honors-based housing that might look similar to the Connected Learning Program with little or no funding and be entirely student led,” she says. “Students are really interested in these kinds of projects and we’d like to continue to support them, but we just don’t have ways to do that right now.”