Q & A With Co-Founder of Active Minds

By Emma McDonald

This week, I caught up with Casey Watters ’15, a psychology major from Dallas, Texas who has been involved in various mental health initiatives on campus. After co-founding Active Minds at Middlebury, a club that provided information on mental health to students and hosted mental health awareness events, Watters saw first-hand the stigma often associated with mental illness. After most of the Active Minds leadership team graduated or took time off, Watters moved on to the Wellness Committee, where she continues to play an important role as a student advocate for mental health awareness and wellness.

Middlebury Campus: Why is mental health and mental health advocacy important to you?

Casey Watters: Transitioning to college is hard and a major trigger for numerous individuals. Simple activities may be stressful, like not knowing whom to eat your first meal with or how to talk to a professor, and I wish I had known about the many resources Middlebury offers when I was a freshman. Frankly, I was so clueless I didn’t even know that Parton Counseling Center even existed! There is a strange unspoken sentiment that mental illnesses have a degree of fault that physical illnesses don’t — like if someone just worked harder, they would be happy. Stigmas like these make it difficult for students to seek help and I hate to think of the number of students on this campus suffering and afraid to speak up. Though my impact may be small, committees and organizations like the Wellness Committee make it known that mental health is important to individuals and to the college—that’s a step in the right direction.

MC: Do you find mental health to be a topic people are willing to talk about, or is it uncomfortable? How do you think we could make it easier to talk about (if you think it is indeed hard)?

CW: Talking about mental health is undoubtedly hard. It is personal, subjective, and often perceived as embarrassing, vulnerable, or weak. To admit that you are not okay and seek professional help takes a lot of courage and it is important to see strength in seeking help rather than weakness. The field of psychology itself is in its infancy, as my professors constantly remind me. It’s important to educate ourselves on how to maintain our own health and wellness and know when, how, and to whom to reach out to. Most people know or have known someone who struggles with mental illness and it is also important to supply friends and family members with support. I am a strong believer in positive psychology notions of prevention and day to day striving for wellness, for if we all prioritized our health as much as our grades, we’d be a much happier campus.

MC: Why do you think people stigmatize mental illness as opposed to physical illness?

CW: I think one of the biggest factors in stigma surrounding mental illness is the notion of fault. No one blames someone for breaking their leg in a soccer game, but some blame someone with an eating disorder or suffering from depression. I think this fear of being at fault for something that feels so out of control is a huge part of the stigma.

MC: How do you think Middlebury can improve in relation to mental health awareness?

CW: In my four years here, I have already seen improvements in Middlebury’s discussion about mental health awareness — like body image events and It Happens Here. But change starts at the level of the individual and it is up to us to question our own attitudes towards mental health … and be willing to engage in a conversation about how to better our campus.

MC: How does the Wellness Committee relate to mental health discourse on campus?

CW: Mental health, like wellness, is a term that could be interpreted in many ways. And like wellness, it is often placed in a box as an entity separate from academic, social and physical spheres. Something the Wellness Committee works to accomplish is the integration of these “separate” spheres of daily life — it is impossible to spread awareness about anxiety disorders without addressing weekend life or academic stressors; it is impossible to spread awareness about eating disorders without addressing physical wellness or social norms and it is impossible to spread awareness about depression without addressing homesickness or winter weather. Mental health or psychological disorders can succeed in creating a positive feedback loop that is detrimental to all aspects of an individual’s life; so why do we so often refuse to talk about them until they have become a problem? We hope to affect students’ lives on a daily basis with easy tips for maintaining happiness.

MC: Who is involved with the Wellness committee?

CW: A number of faculty members are involved in the committee and a few students, with faculty and staff representatives from a variety of departments and disciplines, such as Mike Roy from the CTLR, Ellen McKay and Laurie Jordan from the Scott Center, Matthew Kimble from the Psychology Department, Virginia Logan from Parton, Barbara McCall of Health & Wellness and Francisca Drexel from Film and Media to name a few. We have over 20 members, each of whom provides their own expertise as well as a unique perspective on the desires and necessities of their department.

MC: What is your role as a member of the Wellness Committee?

CW: I am a student representative of the Wellness Committee and often find faculty members turning to me for a student perspective. It’s been an amazing opportunity to work with faculty members who strive to use their department’s resources to improve overall health and wellness of the student body. It can be tricky to be the voice of the desires and needs of the student body, but we work to provide enough variety in our events that everybody’s passions can be fulfilled.

MC: Do you feel the committee is filling a role on campus that was lacking previously? What role or function would you say that is?

CW: I definitely feel that the Wellness Committee is fulfilling a crucial role that was previously lacking on Middlebury’s campus. With representatives from numerous departments, our resources range from those equipped with technical skills to those trained to provide spiritual guidance. Together, we are able to not only brainstorm ideas and discuss what the faculty, staff and students of Middlebury College need but we have the means to implement those ideas and see them through. Regardless of how many students choose to attend the events we plan or access the website we make, the fact that those resources are there speaks to the priorities of the college.

MC: What events is the Wellness Committee putting on this semester? When are they?

CW: We have a number of events still in the works such as cooking lessons in Atwater Dining Hall with an accompanying cook book, and some events already planned such as weekly Nia classes now offered for students, Tai Chi for faculty and staff and speaker Emily Nagoski coming to campus October 6 to give a talk on love, attachment and relationships. We’re really excited about all of these events as we’ve been planning them for a while and are constantly brainstorming new ideas as a group.

You can attend Nagoski’s lecture on love, attachment, and relationships on October 6 at 7:00 PM in Dana Auditorium.

Would you like to share a mental health-related experience or feedback (anonymously) with the Unspoken Stigmas column? Go to go/unspokenstigmas to contribute.

 

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