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Activism at AU: Isabel Zayas, Mental Health Awareness

Name: Isabel Zayas

Major: Justice & Law with a minor in Public Policy & Administration

Year: Class of 2018

Issue that’s important to you: Mental Health Awareness

Her Campus American University: How did you get started?

Isabel Zayas: I got started with mental health activism in my junior year of high school. From middle school to my sophomore year of high school, I dealt with depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, hospitalization, and self-harm. After being hospitalized for the second time, I was put into a group-home living situation and was there for nine months. I lived with five other girls who were dealing with the same issues, all from very different backgrounds from my own. After I left the group home, I realized that I needed to find ways to help individuals with mental illnesses feel safe in their own communities by reducing stigma and increasing access to mental health care. That’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since. This issue is extremely important to me because I know that if I had been in a space where I felt supported or had better access to the help I needed, a lot of things that ended up happening could’ve been prevented.

HCAU: What have you done in your time at AU to combat this issue?

IZ: I haven’t gotten everything I’ve wanted to get done on AU’s campus regarding mental health. I helped to organize a symposium last semester which framed Mental Health as a Social Justice Issue, where we had individuals with lived experience and other experts discuss various aspects of mental health issues and treatment. I volunteered for two ASFP Out of the Darkness walks on campus and off. Right now, I have a few things in the works which I hope to accomplish before the end of the year. Most of my advocacy right now is centered around awareness, so I try to have conversations every single day about mental health. For me, activism is more than just organizing events or serving on a committee. Since mental illness is such a private shame, the best activism I can accomplish is never shutting up about my own experiences. The best successes I have are those which make others feel less alone and as if their voices matter.

HCAU: Do you think people have misconceptions about this mental health? How do you combat them?

IZ: I think there are an incredible amount of misconceptions about mental health, present both in the media and social situations. Especially during this election season, the mentally ill as a population are popularly demonized and blamed for violence in this country. People who disclose their diagnosis can be subject to ridicule and discrimination based on something they cannot control. There is still the persisting thought, even in the most liberal of circumstances, that mental illness is simply a sign of weakness. PTSD is thought only to be experienced by soldiers when it’s rampant among sexual assault survivors. Anxiety disorders are consistently equated to simple experiences of stress. Those who discuss their mental illnesses are seen as dramatic, or vying for attention. It’s an omnipresent stigma, present in families and institutions as well. The best way to combat these issues is to put a face to a diagnosis, to promote education about the facts of mental illnesses, and to protect the civil rights of people with mental illnesses. I believe that the most effective way to combat stigma is by discussing my own experiences with mental illness openly and encouraging others to do the same.

HCAU: You’ve critically assessed and discussed how our campus deals with mental illness on your personal social media as well as campus publications, such as The Rival. Where do you hope to see our campus go in the next few years, based on what you’ve observed?

IZ: I hope to see mental health issues treated properly on this campus. It is difficult enough for students to seek treatment for mental illness, but long wait times and limited sessions only act as barriers to proper mental health care. I would love for there to be peer to peer counseling available on campus, through which the education of peer counselors would help reduce stigma itself. Peer to peer counseling would also help AU foster a greater sense of community in which individuals support one another with their mental health issues.

HCAU: Activism can be tiring, especially if you engage in difficult subject matter. What are some ways you practice self-care?

IZ: The best ways that I practice self-care is through the support of my friends. They help me remember to take care of myself, whether it’s through reminding me to eat healthier (shout out to Julia for always making me delicious food) or telling me that I am good enough (shout out to Rain for killing my persistent imposter syndrome). The best self-care that I practice is building a support system and supporting other people in return. 

HCAU: Is there something you’ve learned about yourself since becoming an activist?

IZ: I’ve learned that my passion can be used as a good or a bad thing. It is helpful when I try to affect change and raise awareness, but can be overwhelming in other situations. I’m trying to learn how to properly channel that passion. 

HCAU: What would you say to someone who is suffering from mental illness on AU’s campus?

IZ: If you are dealing with mental health issues on AU’s campus, please seek help. Talk to someone, whether it’s a friend or an RA. People care about you and there is help available to you. It is possible to recover. Many people on this campus know what you are dealing with, even if you don’t realize it. You are not alone.

HCAU: What would you say to a friend who is seeing someone else struggle?

IZ: If you think that your friend may be dealing with mental health issues, reach out to them. Be there for them in any way that you can. Don’t judge their symptoms or recovery. If they want your help, give it to them. Otherwise, be as supportive as you can, and remember to listen. Most people don’t want your advice about an issue or an emotion that they’re feeling, they just want someone to say “I’m sorry, that sucks. I’m here for you. I love you. Your emotions are valid.” That can make the greatest difference for someone.


All photos provided by Isabel Zayas

Chelsea Cirruzzo is a sophomore at American University studying Public Relations and Strategic Communications. She is originally from Long Island. In addition to writing for Her Campus American, Chelsea is a Community-Based Research Scholar as well as a Resident Assistant. When not reading or writing, Chelsea can be found seeking out pizza wherever it might be or talking about feminism. 
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