There were around four dozen pieces of paper, some emblazoned with a few choice words and others boasting heartfelt novellas, but all of them said the same thing: You are not alone.
Suffering from a mental illness can be a terribly isolating experience. Unlike cancer or diabetes, mental illnesses cannot always be objectively measured, and people unfamiliar with mental health problems often have a hard time understanding them. Last Thursday, the ASUC presented “Confessions,” a gallery of anonymously submitted stories from Cal students, intended to increase mental health awareness and understanding on campus.
Some of the submissions simply told of a painful experience — sexual abuse, suicide attempts and disillusionment were common — but quite a few had optimistic things to say. Phrases like, “It gets better,” and “You are not alone,” peppered the pages, though “anxiety” and “depression” were well-represented as well. Flyers with information about mental health and treatment were available throughout the lobby of Wurster Hall.
“In addition to telling the students [that] other people are going through the same thing, we’re trying to provide them resources in case they need help,” said sophomore Eric Liu, who worked on the ASUC-sponsored event. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m not alone on this campus.’”
Although the collection was called “Confessions” and seemed to be inspired by “Post Secret,” most of the students who submitted pieces were not “confessing” anything. The vast majority of stories were simply individual experiences designed to let readers know that their problems are not abnormal, and they were extremely successful as a collection. Stories echoed each other, and visitors found that the stories echoed their own feelings and problems.
Rather than matter-of-factly telling students how to spot and treat a mental health problem, the ASUC presented the information in the most powerful way possible: through the voices of students’ peers. Because the stories were anonymous, each seemed like it could have been written by anyone — a stranger, the quiet girl in your history discussion, your lab partner, your best friend — and the stoic, museum-like atmosphere of the lobby reflected the seriousness of that fact.
It was an incredible display of community. No one explicitly told visitors to be quiet, but the visitors carried themselves with implicit reverence. The solemnity pervaded the entire room. No one had to read every single piece to understand the point of the gallery, and that’s what made “Confessions” so powerful.
Liu added that, while a few submissions were obviously “trolling,” most took the project very seriously. The quality of the writing and relevance of the content in each piece was remarkable, and though all the pieces were unique, they worked together brilliantly to create an artistic and meaningful exhibit.
The only failure of “Confessions” was that few people were able to experience it. The event lasted only two hours on April 4, and though the turnout was impressive, many students who could have benefitted from it did not have the opportunity to do so. However, the event’s organizers are hoping to continue their efforts to increase mental health awareness.
“With the ASUC, we’re trying to make it an annual thing,” Liu said. “We’re really interested in putting this event on every year or every semester.”
The event’s potential continuity is important, because mental illness is an ongoing battle that simply cannot be won alone. It’s imperative that students understand that they are not strange or oversensitive or weak but sick, and the first step is to show them that there are others who understand and many who have gotten better. For many, “Confessions” has the potential to be that first step.