A new CBS poll has found that two in three Americans think mental illness is a very serious problem. At the University of Virginia, students are taking the issue into their own hands, sharing their struggles publicly to not only heal, but to erase the stigma that comes with anxiety and depression by lifting up one another.
Graduate student Alexandra Pentel founded If You’re Reading This – an interactive, online forum addressing mental health issues – in 2016 when, as an undergraduate student, she weathered a dark period.
“I, myself, had gone through some personal struggles with mental health,” she said. Although resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services are available at UVA, Pentel said she realized that “for some students, they will never want to even talk to a professional.”
“If you’re reading this, I want you to know you are valued, loved and belong here.”
- Allen Groves, Dean of Students
Pentel said she struggled trying to figure out how to “come out” to her friends about what she was going through, “admitting the struggle and feeling like if I were to say this to certain people, that they would judge me or not want to be friends with me anymore.”
In fact, that did happen with one person, which got her thinking. “I wish there was a place or a way for people to kind of come forward first and say, ‘Hey, if you’re my friend, I want you to be able to talk to me about these things,’” she said.
So Pentel created If You’re Reading This to allow students and members of the UVA community to step out and share their feelings “and not have all the responsibility be on the side of the person in a disempowered position, whether they are struggling with mental illness like depression, anxiety or even just life events like stress or grief,” she said.
Having an online forum helped reduce a lot of barriers. The site is free. Students can access it anytime, from the privacy of their dorm, apartment, library – wherever. The concept has grown over time, with a professor posting an essay, eventually followed by UVA President Jim Ryan, Dean of Students Allen Groves and men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett.
“It’s awesome because I think what that shows students is that we’re all people, and even the people you think have it together or are really winning, like with Tony Bennett and the NCAA championship … we all struggle with things,” Pentel said. “It’s OK to admit that and we kind of have to lean on each other.”
“If you’re reading this, you can give yourself permission to pause and reevaluate what is best for you in this moment. ”
- Sarah Cooper, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, UVA Counseling and Psychological Services
Lillian Mezey, the associate director of psychiatric services in UVA’s Counseling and Psychological Services office, said sharing stories is a very powerful way for people to take ownership of their narratives. In turn, when students get positive feedback and thanks for stepping outside their comfort zone by, for example, writing a piece on If You’re Reading This, it is very good for mental health because it feels good to help others.
“When people take what is often a very scary step of allowing themselves to be vulnerable and opening up and sharing about their struggles, they are often surprised by the supportive responses that they get,” she said. “Often, the other person hearing the story then opens up as well and that can really create a stronger sense of connection and support.”
The idea has caught on. In the last three years, nearly 100 people have shared stories of struggle, introspection and the importance of self-care. The site has had nearly 102,000 views and about 40,000 visitors since it was founded.
“If you’re reading this, you aren’t worthless.”
Jonathan Larado, a second-year student from Vienna, penned a letter last month. He said he didn’t have personal struggles with mental health, but wanted to share some of his experience “because I have a bunch of friends who really do. I know there are tons of people out there, especially in this school, who deal with the mental health issues that a lot of the kids in the website address,” he said.
Larado’s letter focused on his unrelenting impulse to strive for perfection, something he has come to see as unsustainable. “I didn’t realize how truly overwhelmed I was making myself until just a few years ago, when a therapist asked me, ‘What in the world could you possibly be worried about?’ when I confronted her with worries about my grades and résumé,” he wrote.
His advice is for students constantly reaching for that brass ring is to pause, appreciate the accomplishments that got them to UVA and be themselves. “Nobody can do that better,” he wrote.
Julia Rupp, a fourth-year student from Alexandria, decided to share her essay after reading one written by one of her dearest friends. She was inspired because the piece was “vulnerable” and “poignant.”
“Last semester, I had probably my worst bout of depression to date, which was something I didn’t really have before I came to college,” Rupp said. She was determined to be more open about her depression and one of the ways she did that was writing an essay on If You’re Reading This.
“As you face the highs and lows of your time on-Grounds, I encourage you to find your ‘team,’ whether that be your roommates, classmates, or one of the many resources that UVA offers students.”
- Tony Bennett, men's basketball coach
Like Larado, Rupp was relentless with herself, determined to do as many things as she possibly could. But the motivation was not coming from a good place. When, for example, the voice in her head said she should exercise, it wasn’t motivated by a desire to get healthy.
“I thought I should work out, because I have a history of body issues, not because it would make me feel good,” she wrote. “I dug myself into a hole by not giving myself a break every once in awhile, and even more by turning things I loved into chores. Breaking that thought pattern hasn’t been easy.”
Because so much of life at UVA seems to be about being involved in different activities, Rupp said she got wrapped up in a semantic tangle. “Being involved isn’t always necessarily tied into what you want to be doing,” she said. “With my mental health struggles, I wasn’t always able to figure out what I actually wanted to do, versus what the essay ended up being about, which was what I should do.”
“You belong here at UVA. It doesn’t matter where you are from, the color of your hair or the color of your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation, your religion – whoever you are and wherever you are from, you belong, and we’re thrilled that you’re part of this community.”
- UVA President Jim Ryan
Rupp said being able to step back and look at the expectations she was putting on herself helped her find clarity. She took the summer for some self-evaluation so she could enter her fourth and final year at UVA “with a better mindset about how I wanted to spend this time, since it is the last year.”
The thought of sharing her thoughts and vulnerability in such a public way surprisingly did not give Rupp pause.
“What I am trying to internalize more and more is that this mental health struggle that I have is so much a part of me that it is something I want people to know. It is something I want to acknowledge publicly,” she said. “I think this is always the hope, that you reflect for yourself, but then you always hope that other people can find solace in your words.”
“If you’re reading this, it’s ok to not be ok and to let yourself feel.”
- Léo Z
Rupp said she felt a sense of relief after she posted her essay. “I felt relief to put these thoughts that had been going around in my head into words. Writing has always been cathartic for me,” she said.
That thought echoes Pentel’s sentiment that the site helps demystify people you might suspect “have it all together.”
“I don’t think that people would necessarily know that I or any of my friends have mental illness,” Rupp said.
She’s glad it’s out there now.