Open Book

by Kathryn Forbes

I’ve always been a fairly open book. There are honestly very, very few things people don’t know about me. I only feel shy on rare occasions and grew up with my sweet, well-mannered mother constantly telling me that I don’t need to share everything with everyone. In the first grade, my teacher gave us a cute poem about the kids in our class and my line was “...and Kathryn always had a story to tell!” I went to an all-girls high school that did a phenomenal job of helping me understand that I am a woman with opinions who will change the world by using her voice. I was accepted into a big university because I wrote an essay about shaving my legs and I was awarded a huge scholarship from another because I wrote about how much I love cookies that aren’t really crunchy, but more on the doughy side. In other words, if there was a random personal subject that was never discussed in a college essay, I probably wrote about it. I ended up at the University of Mississippi, where my loud mouth definitely irritated at least 7 and a half people and, like, two professors (most professors appreciated this quality though, especially those in the Public Policy department). So naturally never really cared about others knowing that I hadn’t had time to wash my hair lately, had $12.67 in my bank account for the next week, or that I took an entire semester off to recover from severe depression/anxiety. Normal college stuff.

My freshman year of college was such a happy year. I couldn’t wait to get back to Oxford, Mississippi after that first summer; however, the sophomore slump quickly caught up to me. I had been suffering from anxiety since I took Accounting 201 as a second-semester freshman (big mistake) and wasn’t on the right medications. The anxiety spiralled into depression, which became so severe so quickly that I was soon hospitalized for suicidal intentions. This happened during recruitment at Ole Miss, which occurs during the academic school year--not beforehand, like most schools. Tensions are high during recruitment and girls spend a lot of time talking, so naturally, rumors were FLYING while I was in the hospital. I was released from the hospital after 72 hours (the legal minimum time for a suicidal person to remain in care), spent a week at home, and somehow convinced my family that I was healthy enough to stick out the remainder of the semester. Silly me could never have known that this was the beginning of a long, tedious journey.

My friend and then-neighbor, Tyler, had come across an organization online called Active Minds, which aims to fight stigmas associated with mental health as well as spread awareness and education on college campuses. She and I registered it as a student organization on campus and began making plans to officially bring it to Ole Miss. We wanted to become more involved outside of our sorority and were passionate about mental health. The remainder of the semester was weird. I didn’t really care about people directly asking me where I had disappeared to during rush, so a lot of people were starting to hear that I had spent time in the hospital. Why people found it acceptable to ask me at the lunch table about what exactly led me to a hospital, I have absolutely no idea, but I didn’t mind. A few girls had started coming up to me at parties saying they were thrilled to know they weren’t the only ones with bad anxiety or sad thoughts. These are weird compliments to receive while watching these people throw back tequila shots at a bar, but like I said, I’ll talk about anything with strangers.

Some poor grades and a nasty breakup later, my depression dragged me so far into a hole that things were hopeless. I was very, very sick. In fact, my mom and I now look back on pictures from that December-January and are always shocked at how much the depression was physically affecting me, even as I tried to smile in pictures with friends. I found myself in the hospital again that January, but this one was bigger and closer to home, so my parents could see me every day. Instead of the minimum 72 hours, the doctors kept me there for one week. My parents told me that they were going to help fight this issue full-force and that I would be taking a semester off to do so. I was angry and considered this social suicide (no pun intended). I was released a few days before my 20th birthday.

Of the long list of sacrifices and tough love my parents showed, keeping me home was the most important decision they made during that time. They made sure I kept exercising, got me to therapy twice a week without complaining about the cost, and made sure I took my new medication. Once I was getting out of the house more, I began working at a boutique my mom and I had always loved. This gave me responsibilities and social interaction. After a few long months, I was learning how to enjoy life again.

While I was gone, a few students were starting to tell others about Active Minds. I think they held one general meeting, but it was raining that evening so very few people showed up. Students knew why I wasn’t at school that spring. I know that people had come up with numerous reasons why I was home. Some of these rumors were actually really amusing. My favorite was that I was “working on a fashion internship.” My closest friends fiercely and loyally addressed questions by saying “she’s sick and she’s taking time off to get better.” Again, how in the world people I barely knew found it appropriate to ask someone why their friend was spending a semester at home, I cannot tell you.

Deciding to return to Ole Miss that fall was somehow both an easy and difficult decision to make. On one hand, my parents were reluctant to send me 9 hours away from home again just in case another incident were to happen. On the other, it’s Ole Miss. I loved it too much to cut my time there in half. I decided to remain a member of my sorority in order to have more opportunities to see people, keep up with my friends, and give me some bit of schedule in my new, healthier life. I returned to Oxford for my junior year a completely different person. This version of me was a truer version: still an open book, but a much healthier, energetic, louder Kathryn than the fragile, hopeless girl everyone had last seen. I knew how to truly enjoy life and was beginning to understand how close I had been to taking something so precious away from myself. I was back to have a damn good time. My resume tripled as I threw myself into more campus organizations. I spent many more nights at the bars yet somehow managed to get on the Chancellor’s List both semesters. I finally got a chance to begin Active Minds.

People were beginning to come up to me more often on campus or other places around Oxford to tell me that they appreciated how open I was about everything I had recently struggled with. They realized for the first time that they were not the only ones to have similar experiences. I started receiving messages from people saying “Hey, I know we don’t know each other that well, but I heard about what you went through and I would love to grab coffee sometime. I’m going through something difficult.” I got calls from parents who didn’t know if they should pull their child from school and texts from boys and girls in any and every organization on campus wondering if they should take their suicidal friend to the hospital or call the police, and what would happen next when they did so.

Active Minds grew as more students were expressing interest in getting involved. We held our first Mental Health Week in the spring of 2017 and it was a great success. Little did we know that Active Minds would triple in size throughout the next year.

The 2017-2018 school year, my senior year, was significant in our chapter’s growth. We soon had small committees of people who helped plan events. One of our events in November attracted so many people that we didn’t have enough chairs to fit everyone! Students were visibly interested in discussing mental health among college students. People from all corners of campus were eager to fight the stigma.

We held our second Mental Health Week at Ole Miss March 26-29, 2018. These plans were made on a much, much larger scale. Everyone suddenly wanted to be involved with what Active Minds was doing. We met with the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Provost, Counseling Center, local mental health agencies, other fraternities and sororities, and the mayor of Oxford, among many others. Send Silence Packing, a national Active Minds event, came to our campus to bring over 1,000 backpacks to the Grove that represented the number of students our country loses to suicide every year. A lot of the backpacks were the actual bags of a student, with photos and stories attached. I was asked to walk with strangers while they read the stories attached to the backpacks, I met people who said they had needed to know they were not alone, and I watched as people reflected on the impact of mental health. Some people said they’d taken an unusual route to campus that morning and simply saw this display by chance. One of the most sobering experiences included seeing classmates who had once judged me for my struggles in the past come by and spend the most time reading through people’s stories. Because we had local and campus resources on hand, many students signed up for services that day.

We also held another event, Humans of Ole Miss, that projected stories and photos of the Ole Miss community in a room. People came to read these powerful stories of struggle and success of their friends. Many of the photos were of well-known students on campus, whose smiling faces were flashed next to their words about what happiness means to them, what they wanted others to know about mental health, or what they would tell their former selves. These photos and stories have since been moved to our social media accounts, which have gained hundreds of followers since Mental Health Week. People are always surprised to hear that their peers have experienced these things. This is the point of the project - we want everyone to realize that mental health affects each and every one of us.

When I reflect on how far Active Minds has come and how much I have personally grown these past two and a half years, I see change that has been made for the better. When I was a sophomore struggling for my life, there was no one I knew of on campus or within my sorority who was open about mental health. I hope younger students have been able to notice Active Minds’ growing presence on campus and that future incoming students come to an environment that encourages open conversation with no stigma around mental health. There is a growing team of people working to make that happen.

As I graduate college, there are plenty of emotions within me. While I still feel anger at times toward those who viewed my struggles with stigma, and even some resentment toward my former self, I have become an even louder, more confident woman who knows I have left Ole Miss a brighter place. The struggles I overcame were a starting point for what eventually became a platform for positive change. Being an open book about these experiences gave me something to be proud of. Was this stigma around mental health difficult to fight? Yes, absolutely. My GPA suffered during my darker times. Sometimes I wasn’t asked on the second date, other times I knew that people were reluctant to be friends with the girl who spent time in the psych ward. However, there were friends who loved me through it all, wonderful people I met through this process, and an appreciation for life that I would not have had I not experienced this. Both the ignorant and compassionate people on our campus have witnessed a few students within Active Minds do things that have been worth each heartache over the years. We have begun to noticeably ease the tensions surrounding conversations about mental health and have brought attention to these important issues among college women and men. A few years ago, I had no one to look up to. As I move on to my next chapter in life, I leave behind a long list of other students who will be an example of triumph to those who need to be taught how to properly enjoy life again.

I came, I saw, and I conquered. My legacy to my alma mater is one of both suffering and success. Both have shaped our chapter of Active Minds and were used to push people to view themselves and others with much more compassion. Whether you have suffered from mental health issues or are simply just passionate about the cause, I urge you to use your experiences to become an open book as well. Positive change will happen as a result.

 

Kathryn Forbes graduated from the University of Mississippi in May 2018. She is beginning her Master’s in Psychological Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, her hometown, in August 2018. She plans on someday earning her PhD. in Clinical Psychology and using her passions of psychology, neuroscience, and public policy to change how people talk about mental health. Kathryn is a huge fan of Harry Potter and lives by the motto WWRBGD - what would Ruth Bader Ginsburg do?

Kathryn Forbes