On October 16, we at Active Minds at U of T held our third SPEAK OUT! event, where students volunteer to give speeches and other performances about their experiences with mental illness. Attendance has nearly doubled since the first one, but that’s not saying much, because only 15 people were at that event.

It makes sense, I guess — people go to our events to talk about real, difficult things honestly, and I can see why you might not want to spend three hours listening to that. But I think that it’s important for everyone to take the time to do that every once in a while, and here’s why.

Our culture is so hands-off. We feel like we’re bothering people if we ask questions. We think they’ll come to us if they need something. We don’t say things that we should say because we assume that they already know. Constantly checking in with all of your friends to see if they are really okay is probably not helpful, but showing interest in the little things can be. If you don’t show that you care on a normal day, how will they know they can turn to you when the shit hits the fan? Pay attention to the lives of the people around you. It sounds basic, but I don’t remember the last time someone texted me just to see how my day was.

This brings me to the idea of community. Our goal is to build a community that people feel safe in, where they feel like they can talk to us, or any of their fellow members. My first objective as an Active Minds executive was to hold a SPEAK OUT! event. The reasoning behind that decision was kind of selfish. I wanted to share my story, to feel like I mattered, and to see how many people related to me. I got some positive feedback, but what really shocked me was how much I related to the other speakers.

I think that most people who come to these events have that experience, and it’s a good one to have. One of the most common things that all people share, not only people with mental illness, is the feeling of isolation, of being alone, or if not alone, then surrounded by the wrong people. People you can’t count on for ‘real things.’  I want to break that down.

Being there for other people requires a surprising amount of confidence in yourself — it feels like you’re putting yourself out there. Sometimes you don’t know what they need. Mental illness in particular is extremely misunderstood and stereotyped; the reality is that every single person’s experience with mental illness, even the exact same disorder, is different. There might be common elements, but everyone’s story is unique.

We believe that the best way to learn about mental illness is by listening to the people who deal with it every day, but that is not the only objective our events serve. SPEAK OUT! teaches people how to listen in general, to gain the courage to care for someone else.

We teach people that talking about ‘real things’ doesn’t have to be scary. My favourite moment from last week’s event was when one of our speakers, in the middle of a serious speech, said, “But — and it’s a big but-” and burst out laughing. Then everybody else did too, because he showed us that it’s okay to laugh even in the face of indescribable sadness.

We teach people that anyone can be brave enough to share their story. I am a terrible public speaker. There is a reason why I’m looking down in every single photo that was taken that night. I’m forever forgetting what I wanted to say and looking at my notes. But I said the words. And that’s all that matters.

Ultimately, what I want people to take away is this: I want all of us to be the kind of people who can be counted on for ‘real things.’ I want everyone to be the kind of friend that they want to have. Don’t just wait for people to come to you. We are all full of various insecurities that stop us from seeking out love and attention. Go to them. Be hands-on. Be touchy-feely.

Say how you really feel, and often, even if all you’re met with is silence.

Chelsea Ricchio is the president of Active Minds at U of T. You can contact Active Minds at [email protected] and find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/activemindstoronto.