Brenna Williams is a senior at UC Davis, and so much more: she’s a Psychology and Anthropology double major, a Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sister, a leader, and a mental health advocate as president of Active Minds of UC Davis. She empowers others with the knowledge that they are not alone in the challenges they face, and empowers herself by learning from those who do the important, incredible work that she so ardently admires. Before Brenna graduates later this spring, I thought I’d talk to her about how she has chosen to shape her college experience — especially through her advocacy.
Tell me a little about Active Minds at UC Davis and what you do.
Active Minds is a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma associated with mental illness and opening up a conversation about mental health. At UC Davis, we use this goal to guide what we do on this campus. For example, End the Silence is our suicide awareness and prevention campaign that we put on every spring quarter. We try to bring attention to the fact that 1,100 students have their lives taken by suicide every year, and this is a number we want to change. We display 1,100 diplomas on the quad that are symbolic of the diplomas these students were never able to get, and stories from students that have had personal experience with suicidal behavior. We do this to educate our peers, and again open up that conversation about an issue that is severely stigmatized and not talked about.
This is heavy stuff. What keeps you going when you’re challenged by it?
The genuine responses we receive from others. When we did End the Silence last spring, we had multiple people come up to our table with tears in their eyes. They told us how grateful they were that this event was going on. Hearing from people that have had personal experience with suicide or other mental health challenges, but have overcome them is so inspiring. More than anything, showing them that they have this entire organization behind them in their struggle and their road to recovery keeps me going.
Why is it important to support women experiencing mental health challenges?
So many other communities and groups of people expereince these challenges, whether its people who identify as women, people that are LGBTQIA+, or people of color. I am really interested in focusing on the challenges of these communities, women included. There’s a stigma around the mental illness women may experience. You always hear about the stereotype of the dramatic, crazy women and you see it in the portrayal of women in the media as well. People say things like “she’s just on her period and that’s why she’s depressed” or “she’s just crazy” and these women’s concerns are not being validated. It’s important to give women the knowledge that if they’re feeling something, it’s not because of their gender. They should be validated, by other women, by their peers, and by everyone. That stereotype is harmful and not productive at all.
How has your work in advocacy influenced your future? What are your plans?
I’ve learned about the importance of prevention through education and awareness. So many organizations focus so much time and money on treatment, and I think an even greater focus could be put on prevention. The dream is for them to be able to deal with these challenges sooner. I have seen that there’s an opportunity to prevent these challenges before they even come to be. I want to pursue a Masters’ Degree in a Public Health and work in a nonprofit, or the Public Health department of a county, and raise awareness about health challenges.
Why did you join a sorority, and what role does it play in your life?
Coming into college is a very scary thing. My mom, who had been in a sorority when she was in college, encouraged me to join one. She said it was so comforting to have a home base, and a group of women with similar values and views in life whom you can call your sisters. No matter what, you have 100 women behind you to help you, encourage you and support you in a large university. Also, another really big thing about being in a sorority that has affected me is seeing all these super successful, motivated and impressive friends. It’s really encouraged me to do so much more than I would have if I wasn’t affiliated with a sorority. I think, “My sister’s doing that, so maybe I can do that too!” Actually, the whole reason I’m part of Active Minds is because a sorority sister encouraged me to do it.
And now for some fun questions. What is your favorite restaurant in Davis?
Thai Canteen. I haven’t eaten there in forever and I miss it.
What’s the best class you’ve taken at Davis?
A primate behavior class. I hung out with monkeys 8 hours a week.
What’s the last thing you watched on Netflix?
Who is your celebrity crush?
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Spain. I think I’m going in the summer!