UCI’s fourth annual Reclaim Mental Health Conference focused on understanding and sharing stories about mental health in order to break the sociocultural stigmas against most forms of mental illness.
UC Santa Cruz student, mental health advocate and yoga instructor Maris Degener and UCI psychology major Sophaline Chuong were both keynote speakers who shared their stories about dealing with mental health in different socio-cultural contexts. Magaly Mendez, a fourth year sociology major at UCI and member of AFSCME 3299, encouraged undocumented students to speak about their trauma and challenge all forms of violence.
Chuong, the daughter of Khmer Rouge survivors, spoke about her own struggles growing up with the traumatic narrative of both her parents and the Cambodian people. She found inspiration and release in telling the stories of her family and their battles with mental health and healing, as well as the stories of other UCI students who were dealing with issues of mental health.
“This is happening right here on our campus,” Chuong said of an interview she conducted with an anonymous student, who told her that although there are resources on campus to help with mental health, they choose not to go because they convince themselves that “whatever it is…is manageable.”
Many times those students who, like the student Chuong spoke to, continue to ignore their mental health out of convenience or denial end up in not only a much worse mental state but also a declining physical state.
Degener shared how she was able to overcome her anorexia with the help of the yoga instructors at Just Be and the doctors who were willing to label her illness as “physical” rather than “mental” to get the help she needed. “I was lucky” she said. Fifty percent of people with mental illnesses like Degener’s can’t afford therapy, let alone other resources, and Degener acknowledges that she was one of the few able to get treatment for her eating disorder. Degener encouraged conference members and the student community at large to find a passion that could help them overcome their hardships, as she did. “It’s about finding something to help you move forward and finding a purpose.”
Workshops were held on various aspects of mental health, from academic burnout and balancing studies with wellness to more nuanced topics like the biological effects of depression, trauma-informed care in adolescents, yoga and meditative healing and MDMA assisted psychotherapy, an FDA approved therapy which uses ecstasy and other hallucinogenic drugs as an outlet for patients suffering from PTSD.
Small group panel discussions gave participants a chance to open up and ask questions about their own mental health and healing. The goal of the conference was to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, especially on college and university campuses.
“Your experience matters.” Chuong told participants. “Your story is what changes things.”