Students combat mental health stigma

Emily Williams

A group of student actors is raising awareness about mental health issues by performing a series of pieces written by students struggling with mental illness.

The fourth annual Mental Health Monologues, sponsored by the Counseling Center and the University of Alabama chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, are focused on erasing the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Eleven student actors will perform monologues submitted anonymously by students, covering topics such as depression, autism, social anxiety disorder and personality disorder.

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“I think it’s a great way to get the message out about mental health issues to see what other students might be going through,” said Becca Kastner, a graduate liaison for NAMI who brought the program to the University. “People are so willing to talk about physical health issues that they have, but mental health issues across the board in our society are still not talked about as often as they should be.”

Kastner started the program as an undergraduate at The College of Charleston after she heard an NPR story about a similar program at Stanford. She is working as a producer this year.

Students submitted monologues in the fall, and the group has been preparing for the show since October.

For junior Laura Lynn Hortter, who will be acting in the production for a third consecutive year, performing the monologues took on a new significance when she was diagnosed with ADHD. One of the biggest challenges, Hortter said, is presenting the monologues in an authentic way.

“I research what the disabilities are, because you want to get to know the people better,” Hortter said. “For me it’s always preparing to understand what these people go through, how they go through their everyday lives and how they cope with it.”

Director Brian Ernsberger said the message of the monologues is both to educate and to inspire action.

(See also “UA counseling professor wins award for mental health resource“)

“In one way or another, everyone is impacted in some way by mental health — whether it is personal, a loved one or friend, even a co-worker,” Ernsberger said. “It is important to have a better understanding so we can not only learn how to be supportive, but also have a better understanding of and empathy for what that person is going through in his or her life.

“We want to give the audience a sense of hope as well,” he said. “We don’t want people leaving the performance feeling like there is nothing that can be done. We want them to see that there is help and there are ways to improve things for those affected, and maybe they will go out and help someone they know is struggling.”

According to NAMI, one in four people will struggle with a mental illness in their lifetime, and these issue often arise in college. Student actor Elise Goubet, who is on the NAMI UA executive board, said one of the benefits of the monologues is they make the issues real for students, instead of just being words in a psychology textbook.

“I think it’s sometimes difficult for people to understand that [mental illnesses] are diseases and they’re very serious,” Goubet said. “I think sometimes, especially things like depression that get talked about so much in our day-to-day lives, we think we know what it is, and we think we know what it’s about, but we really have these kind of surface-level understandings. That’s one of the really big and important things about this is bringing light for students to know that these are serious issues, but if I get help and if I get treatment, I can live with it, and I can be okay.”

The Mental Health Monologues will be preformed Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Ferguson Center Theater. Admission is free with an Action Card, though donations are encouraged. A raffle and question-and-answer session will follow the show.

(See also “Counseling Center offers personal, group sessions“)