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Starting “Bright” Conversations About Mental Health

It’s no secret that mental health is an issue at Harvard–just look at the statistics, the studies or the stories published across campus publications. While there is clear empirical evidence that students are susceptible to depression, anxiety and other disorders, it is rare to know the faces behind those numbers. Without an open dialogue, just who is afflicted by these problems can remain a debilitating, treatment-inhibiting secret.

Lanier Walker (‘14) brought such unspoken victims to attention last spring in an Op-Ed piece for The Crimson titled “We Need to Talk”, where she bravely shared her lifelong battle with anxiety and asked for more students with similar experiences to speak up. Publishing her personal story was a risk, but she received an overwhelmingly positive response from readers in the form of supportive emails and Facebook messages. Contrary to the unspoken Harvard standard of maintaining a perfect facade, admitting she had struggled proved helpful.

Given her firsthand encounter with the difficulties of mental illness, Walker remained passionate about encouraging more open discussion after graduating from Harvard last spring. “[Mental illness is] something I really care about, but it’s something I don’t think people talk about enough,” she says. “It’s so shocking to realize that even your closest friends are going through things you don’t know about.”

Just how Walker would continue to advocate for starting the conversation remained a question until she found out about It Gets Brighter, an initiative recently launched at Oxford, dedicated to deconstructing the stigma around mental health problems.

Founded by Rhodes Scholar Joshua Chauvin, It Gets Brighter follows the model of many web-based activism campaigns by asking individuals affected by a given issue–in this case, mental illness–to share their experiences via video. Visitors to the It Gets Brighter website can record a video with their message, or watch the hundreds of other videos posted on the homepage. Despite its similarities to other activism projects, It Gets Brighter is unique in its focus on inspiring hope while also increasing awareness in its video testimonials.

“The idea behind It Gets Brighter is that it’s a place where, if you want, you can post videos and post your story,” Walker, who now serves as a Youth Ambassador for the campaign, explains.  “We think that making yourself vulnerable is a really powerful experience, because you come to see that it doesn’t have to be that scary to talk about [mental health] even though it feels that way. This is something so common that these conversations should really be normal.”

It Gets Brighter doesn’t only ask individuals who have experienced mental illness to speak up for the campaign; friends, family members, and overall supporters of those who have experienced a mental health challenge are invited to post encouraging videos as well. Reaching people who have not suffered themselves is emphasized because, as Walker puts it, “we really want it to be a website for everyone.”

While support for the campaign is wholeheartedly encouraged, the team behind It Gets Brighter hopes that visitors to the website won’t stop there. “The biggest challenge [we face] is that people are pretty supportive of what we’re doing, but we’d like people to take action instead of just being really supportive, to actually post videos themselves. Right now, it’s the stigma that keeps them from doing it.”

“We also hope that if you don’t feel comfortable posting, and if you’re suffering with things yourself and aren’t really sure what to do, our website can be a place where you can go watch videos of people who have been through experiences like yours,” Walker adds. “And that will make you feel better– to really convey the message that you’re not alone.”

A sense of community drives the growth of It Gets Brighter, as shown by its ever-increasing expansion across the globe. In just a few months, it has spread from its founding location in the United Kingdom to Australia, Canada, Lebanon, Egypt, and the United States. “We would love for the campaign to go viral,” Walker admits. “But viral or not, what we really care about is reaching the people this affects.” Currently, Walker and another member of the It Gets Brighter team, Richard Smith, are spearheading efforts to expand the campaign’s presence within the United States, beginning with Harvard.

Given the misconceptions of mental illness pervasive in popular discourse, speaking up and speaking out requires a great deal of courage. But Walker and other participants in It Gets Brighter have found that simply talking about the problem has far-reaching rewards. “You don’t have to tell the world,” Walker says. “But just telling one person can get you on the road to getting better.”

Walker and her colleagues at It Gets Brighter advocate for an open attitude–staying silent only compounds the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Harvard students–all students–need to keep talking about mental health, and It Gets Brighter is a platform for starting that conversation.

To learn more about the movement–or to post your video–visit the official It Gets Brighter website.

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