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Making small steps toward change, one op-ed at a time

guest column

This past week, I wrote an op-ed for the Chronicle. You did not read it, nor did you miss it. That is because I decided not to publish it.

My op-ed was not only about “The 12 Challenge,” and the inappropriate posts by which it has been characterized, but also about the feeling that most of the Duke community has failed to take mental health seriously for far too long. To make the piece genuine and honest, I included anecdotal stories about my own and others’ personal experiences.

I poured my heart and soul into that piece. I felt proud of it.

I had never written for the Chronicle before, so I submitted my piece thinking that it could be published anonymously. Upon learning that it could not be, I panicked. I felt that it was too emotionally revealing, and could no longer be published in its original form. In editing the piece, I felt that any section, sentence or even word that could provide the Duke community with personal information about myself or others would need to be removed. Essentially, I felt I needed to edit all real experiences out of the piece.

I found that when I did so, the piece entirely lost its authenticity, relatability and power.

I became angry. Not with the Chronicle, but with myself.

My original piece was written with the intention of destigmatizing conversations about mental health. Yet, I was too uncomfortable to associate my name with the experiences detailed in the article. Further, when asked to include my name, I edited my experience out of the narrative. In doing so, I contributed to the very problem that we need to overcome. I invalidated the argument of the piece itself.

In coming to terms with my own hypocrisy, I realized that I am a living, breathing example of why it is so difficult for Duke students to have vulnerable conversations about mental health.

When I imagined publishing the original piece, I was afraid of others’ intolerance, as various opinions and levels of understanding exist regarding mental health. I worried that I, or anybody whose experiences I mentioned, could be treated differently based on our experiences. I was cognizant that with any Google search of my name, the article would pop right up. This could affect people’s futures, both personally and professionally. When personal information is disclosed, it can be used in damaging ways.

Intolerance of mental health is deeply embedded not only in Duke's culture, but also in society.

I am not the only one who is sometimes hypocritical. Most Duke students publicize our desire to spread mental health awareness, and claim that we will support others in times of need. Yet, paradoxically, most of us are too afraid to publicize being the one in desperate need ourselves. In fact, most of us are probably afraid to publicize ever having been in a time of desperate need.

It is normal to fear that others’ judgments will harm us. But, to minimize the potential for such judgments, we need change. This change will not occur overnight.

Yes, students bring their personal levels of exposure to and attitudes toward mental health with them to Duke. But students also come to Duke with a willingness to learn.

The education with which Duke students graduate is powerful. It can make an impact worldwide. If Duke students leave with an education that includes understanding mental health, we can raise awareness everywhere. In doing so, future students—maybe even our own children—will enter Duke with more exposure to and a better attitude toward mental health issues.

Mental health education should not just be encouraged, but required. This starts from the top. Attitudes reflected in the university’s policies must trickle down to reach the student body. To make such education central to the curriculum, Duke’s administration should require students to take one course discussing how to recognize, understand and talk about mental health issues.

As I said, I know that change doesn't happen overnight. But, if Duke hopes that its future student body is one more willing to engage in real conversation around mental health, systematic change must start now

As for students? We, too, can take steps in the right direction.

When we check in with loved ones, let’s not only hope for an authentic response, but also do what we can to ensure they feel safe giving us one. When we see friends, let’s dive into deep, vulnerable, thought-provoking conversations, rather than merely vapid ones. And, when we say hi to acquaintances on campus, let’s ask questions that show we truly care. Let’s welcome others to share their own experiences with the Duke community.

As for me? No, I am not promising that I will publish my original op-ed.

But, I am promising to make conscious efforts to make an actual difference. I will publish this piece. I will train to become a relatable DukeLine Peer coach. I will notify medical professionals if I fear for a peer’s life. I will share authentic details when you ask me how I am; and when I ask you, I will demonstrate my genuine desire to hear the real answer. Little by little, by opening up to others, I hope that I, too, will help to destigmatize conversations about mental health.

I may not be proud of my own hypocrisy, but I am proud of this op-ed.

Let’s all feel proud of the small steps we are taking toward change. 

Isabelle Adler is a Trinity sophomore.

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