I can think of a few times I had to be brave… coming out to my parents, moving over 1000 miles away from home (twice), and delivering my sister’s eulogy. It’s interesting while all of these moments are a piece of my narrative there is one instance I can vividly remember leaving my comfort zone and never going back.
For me, presenting at conferences has always been both an exhilarating, enriching, and exhausting experience. Even today, it's a surreal moment when I get the email stating my conference proposal (yes, the one I frantically finished the day, correction, hours before the deadline). Then I go through the process to create, prepare and practice my presentation, all just to panic the entire time leading up to my session. Then the moment comes when I and maybe a colleague start our presentation, and before we know it we are handing out business cards, exchanging emails, and collecting the evaluations, and just like that, it is behind me. Well on this frosty morning in December 2019 was different. I didn’t present a new trend or best practice, I was going to step into a room and talk about the one part of me many of us keep hidden and rarely discuss — I was going to share my mental health journey. I shared how my mental health journey allowed me to be my most authentic self to teach compassion, courage, and the impact of vulnerability.
That morning started like many other mornings, I snoozed the alarm, showered, and put on my plaid dress. After my partner made me breakfast, they wished me luck, and we confirmed our lunch plans after my presentation. Once I arrived at work, I checked to make sure I had my pointer clicker, playdoh, stars, talking notes, everything I needed to feel comfortable during my presentation. My time slot rolled around and I walked over to Michigan League and took a peek at the space I was going to spend the next hour sharing some of the most intimate parts of my life. After this presentation, I was potentially going to be that womxn who spoke about mental health during the Student Life Conference. There was no going back.
In my presentation, I share my earliest memory of being depressed. I was a junior in high school, and on the first day of school, a senior died in an automobile accident which left our tight-knit community shaken. At that moment, it was as if a cloak had been placed over me and I could not shake the sad and helpless feeling. We first thought it was grief, but as spring rolled around, I still felt numb. I tried everything I could to make myself feel better. I tried exercise, therapy, meditation, journaling, and many other coping strategies. Some of it worked but it never really fixed it permanently. Flash forward, I have had depression bouts or, as I call them “bad days” here and there. My first Ypsi summer, the summer I spent in Colorado in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, or my personal favorite, on my trip a few years back to Belize. There I was on a boat about to snorkel with my best friend and, just filled with sadness. As I’ve grown older, I learned I could no longer keep this all to myself. I knew something had to change. After I returned from Belize, I remember telling my supervisor about my depression, triggers, and what helped pull me out of my bad days. The relief I felt in that moment was transformative.
Since then, I've told my supervisors, colleagues and knew it was only a matter of time before I built up the courage and resilience to share this with my students. I started leveraging my own mental health to provide a brave space for my students to share their own stories. I was able to meet students where they were at and sit there with them in that moment to remind them they are not alone. Students trusted me and started to advocate for the support they needed inside and outside of the classroom. With my colleagues, being transparent helped them better understand me and they could now see when I was having my bad days. We supported one another as we navigated our own mental health journeys.
Mental health is unique because it can affect all of us or none of us. Some of us are born with it, others an event can trigger the onset of symptoms, or some of our loved ones live with mental health. The fact is 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness* (NAMI.org) in the U.S. So what are we doing as student affairs practitioners and administrators to support our fellow womxn? What resources or training are offered for professional staff? How is your office or unit supporting self-care, especially during the COVID pandemic? How are you taking care of yourself? Remember, you must first put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. When it comes to mental well-being it is okay and even encouraged to be selfish.
For the longest time, I thought my mental health was a weakness. I have spent the last five years of my life rewiring my brain to allow myself to honor my mental health and practice self-care and love. My depression makes me Lauren, but I know I can help other womxn if I am brave enough to be vulnerable. In the words of Brene Brown, “vulnerability is the only way to build connection,” and I know now more than ever we could all use a little connection right now.
*Please note, I am only using illness here because it is a statistic. I do not use illness in my language, as I personally feel it has a negative connotation.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.)https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/GeneralMHFacts.pdf
Lauren Shackleford is a Career Development Coordinator at the School of Information at the University of Michigan. In her current role, she works with graduate students helping them achieve their career goals through career development and exploration. Lauren earned her degrees from Eastern Michigan University with a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and a bachelor's in Information Assurance. Lauren looks forward to taking her next step in her academic journey and will be starting a doctoral program at Michigan State University in the fall studying Higher Adult Lifelong Education.