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From Silence to Hope

Kendall Aufmuth, a junior who founded the To Write Love On Her Arms chapter at UAlbany, poses at her front door and at Sleeping Beauty Mountain in Lake George.

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 1, 2017) — Some of the students gathered in Dutch Quad’s penthouse were afraid to fully look each other in the face, afraid to be recognized. Others had brought friends for moral support.

A panel of peer professionals sat at the front of the room, ready to engage in discussion over the subject which had put several on edge. It centered on the event’s title: “Break the Silence about Depression.”

The discussion, which began on a Thursday night late last semester following a film screening of “The Truth about Suicide: Real Stories of Depression in College,” verified the film’s message.

One young man, sitting in the front of the room, shared his experience with depression, another with suicide. A young woman spoke though tears about the stigma of being on medication. Several student leaders talked about the paralyzing difficulty of maintaining a high-achieving appearance while struggling to function in day-to-day life.

The event was organized by one of the peer professionals, junior Kendall Aufmuth, who last year founded a UAlbany chapter of To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA), a national nonprofit dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. Aufmuth wanted to raise awareness about mental health concerns among students and to create a safe, accepting campus environment where students can freely share their stories.

Aufmuth’s own story began as a freshman, when she found herself struggling with depression and anxiety. She sought professional help despite fears of the stigma associated with mental illness. Counseling, she said, “made me a better student and person. I realize having ‘weaknesses’ just means that you’re human. It’s aided me in breaking that perfectionist attitude. As someone once told me, college is about adjusting to the maladjustments.”

Recognizing that there are other struggling students on campus who may be unaware of or unwilling to seek help from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Aufmuth founded TWLOHA, which works closely with CAPS so students can get referrals for professional help.

Heidi Wright, CAPS project coordinator, advises the group and was happy to serve as liaison. “You have to have a safe environment for these topics,” said Wright. “Stigma exists and we try to decrease it by spreading awareness. The more we have these conversations and people open up and talk about their experiences, the more people feel like it’s OK to share their stories.”

Wright trained Aufmuth and other founding members on how to open conversations with students and give them referral tools. She also is present at many TWLOHA events as a resource.
Many students fear being seen as weak if they reach out for help, and that can isolate them. This can be especially true for students in leadership positions who receive accolades for their accomplishments while battling unseen mental health issues.

“They should be able to be honest,” Aufmuth said. “There is not a single person that has not struggled. You don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to stay silent. You can talk, and say things aren’t perfect right now, and that’s ok.”

For Aufmuth, the beginning of sharing her story was the beginning of her future. A double major in political science and English, she is studying abroad in Prague this semester, volunteering as an English teacher in a school.

In the Dutch Quad Penthouse on that Thursday night, there was a collective sense of relief as silences began to break — students realizing there is still the opportunity to feel accepted and be embraced in a community without stigma, criticism or ridicule.

For more information about the UAlbany Chapter of To Write Love On Her Arms, contact Jessica Simon, jsimon@albany.edu, or visit Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SUNY-Albany-Twloha-UChapter-788230067989695/?fref=ts.

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