As a prelude to the Disability Awareness month program coming up in October, the “In Their Shoes” exhibit encouraged students, faculty and staff at Ramapo College to become more understanding and compassionate toward people coping with mental health issues.
“Mental illness is like air. Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is all around us,” said Tricia Baker, co-founder of Attitudes in Reverse, also known as AIR.
AIR, founded in 2009, is a non-profit organization that seeks to educate the public about mental health through informative programs and emotionally moving exhibits such as the “In Their Shoes” display. Pairs of shoes lined the Grove, each representing one of the 233 adolescents who lost the battle to mental health and committed suicide in New Jersey between 2010 and 2012.
“You can tell people that this number of youth commits suicide per year or have committed suicide in New Jersey but ‘In Their Shoes’ is a good way to visualize it. It’s more impactful to see it more as individuals rather than just as a number or concept,” said Regina Cuddeback, vice president of Active Minds.
Tags tied to the shoes featured quotes either said by the individual or statements that reflect the feelings of those who have lost all hope and surrendered to their mental illness. The VIP section included shoes donated by celebrities with messages of positivity, inspiration and hope.
“With stigma, there is silence around mental illness. It is sort of like domestic violence and other important issues in our society where there is more silence around them. It’s easier to talk about and get behind breast cancer support or support healthy hearts,” said Marianne Dunn, psychological counselor at the Center for Health and Counseling Services. “Talking about mental illness, there is more stigma around that for cultural reasons and for personal reasons. Having celebrities vie in helps to raise awareness and decrease stigma.”
While the exhibit centered around drawing the attention to the number of youths who commit suicide each year, it also functioned as a venue for students to become aware of the resources on campus that are accessible to them. The Center for Health and Counseling Center offers free and confidential counseling to all Ramapo College students, as well as therapy group sessions and emergency counseling services after office hours through the Office of Public Safety.
The newly created Stigma Free Committee at Ramapo College is dedicated not only to promoting awareness about mental illness, but also highlighting the multidimensional aspect of wellness. On the committee are Susan Auger from the Center for Reading and Writing, Abbe Benowitz, OSS diabilities counselor, Dunn, Hilary Westgate, librarian at George T. Potter library and Francine Quintano, certified medical assistant of Health Services.
“We have such full staffs on campus to help. We have a full staff here in Specialized Services. We have a full staff in the Counseling Center and we have a full staff in the Women’s Center,” said Benowitz. “We’re really a very progressive college in terms of acceptance and resource.”