Laura Porter is a 2016 alumna.
After six long, difficult and amazing years at GW, I am proud to call myself an alumna. During my time at GW, I took three semesters off for treatment. I was living with an eating disorder, substance dependence, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. As a person in long-term recovery and an advocate for those still suffering, I was able to take my seat in the Smith Center, excited and overwhelmed with gratitude that I was finally able to experience the moment. It was incredible to be there and to see everyone cheering each other on, celebrating our times at GW.
As the ceremony went on, we heard from various members of the community, including the student speaker, Chris Evans. When Evans got up to address the graduates, his speech was, at first, lighthearted. Then, the theme of the speech shifted.
Throughout the rest of the speech after his initial jokes, Evans talked about what the University needs to do better to help students living with mental illness, mentioning the three students who died by suicide at GW on the Mount Vernon Campus in 2014.
As soon as he said “committed suicide,” I felt my face get hot. Slowly, tears started to form in my eyes and soon, I couldn’t seem to stop them from pouring down my face. These were tears of shock, pain and hurt. I sat there, shaking and repeating “Why? Why now?” I felt paralyzed, like I couldn’t escape.
Evans called on the community to support students with mental illness, and I understand why. I know that we need to address mental health on campus, we need to end stigma and we need to ensure that everyone can know what it feels like to sit in those seats in the Smith Center, join their classmates on the National Mall and call themselves GW alumni. And I also know the pain and despair that engulfed my mind when I attempted to end my life. I know the helpless and terrifying feeling of losing friends to addiction, eating disorders and suicide. I know what it’s like to want to do something so desperately to save someone and to want them to know that it gets better.
At GW, I’ve been so grateful to hear the conversation about mental illness emerge throughout my time here. It’s something we definitely need to talk about and I’m glad that we are. But I am tired of those of us living with mental illness being spoken to, not spoken with. I am not helpless. I am not a problem that can be solved through free counseling sessions. I am not a person without a voice.
To me, recovery from my struggles and support for those still struggling is not an accomplishment you can put on your resume. Support is realizing that I don’t know what someone else’s experience is like and asking what I can do to support a peer. Recovery is about speaking up when I see injustice and sharing my experience so that others can find hope. My recovery and advocacy are not about challenging the GW administration, as Evans’ speech suggested – it’s about challenging stereotypes and stigma.
Support is my friend who comforted me during that ceremony, offering her hand and saying “I know.” She understood me, she didn’t tell me what I needed. She sat with me, sharing in my experience and acknowledging, not “fixing” my pain. Support is the incredible compassion from the psychology professor who walked off the stage to ask if I was OK and even left the auditorium to find me tissues.
Recovery is finding my three-year sobriety chip in my purse and holding onto it through the entire commencement celebration and holding it tightly as I walked across the stage in honor of my friends who never had the chance to know what it’s like to graduate.
Ignoring the real, lived experiences of students like myself is to perpetuate the very stigma we want to eradicate. We are a community. Let’s listen to each other and let’s have a real, inclusive conversation about supporting students living with mental illness.
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