Ramapo hosts panel to bring mental health awareness

Photo by Esther Gonzales

In celebration of Diversity Day and Disability Awareness Month Ramapo hosted a panel led by Ramona Kopacz, a Learning Disabilities Specialist. 

Four students, Daniel Gurniad, Julian Wechsler, Breeanna Douglas, and Kaitlin Spreen, gathered to share their personal stories and raise awareness to help break down the barriers surrounding mental health. 

As the crowd gathered into the Alumni Lounges, the four students sat at a long table in front of the small room, Ramona Kopacz asked a series of questions for each student to answer and elaborate on. 

Many of the questions dealt with how they define disability, a time when someone did not understand their disability, assumptions others have had about their disability and what they would like others to know about disabilities. 

Julian Wechsler passionately explained that removing oneself from saying “I am disabled” allows room for more freedom, instead choosing to say, “I have a disability.” 

Likewise, the other students on the panel agreed and said they all find different ways to not allow their disability to control them. Rather, they live by their own rules and adapt when needed in different settings. 

“If I had listened to the naysayers who said I’d never be in college,” Daniel Gurniad said, “I wouldn’t be here now.” 

For Gurniad there have been people throughout his life, including teachers and peers, who doubted his disability because of the common belief that if you can’t see it, it’s not there. However, with a glimpse of kindness and support shown by those who wanted the best for him, he continued to push past obstacles to now attend Ramapo College. 

“Just say hi,” he said when mentioning what he would like others to know. “That’s the best thing that can happen. Just say hello and be as accepting or as kind as possible.” 

Assumptions, in the workforce in particular, often lead to others saying or thinking one is not capable, mentioned Breeanna Douglas. However, “there are ways to get around [the disability],” she said as she described different tools that help her. 

“Ramapo’s model is to push boundaries,” added Ramona Kopacz. “Find what your strengths are and push forward.” 

“We’re not all that different,” said Kaitilin Spreen. “There’s just things we have to do differently to get the same results.” 

As the panel continued to discuss their personal experiences, one of the common threads was invisible disabilities. There is often not only stigma attached to disabilities but also doubt and disbelief. 

However, when someone is overcome by anxiety to talk about what they are facing, it can be extremely difficult to communicate with others the truth. 

The most important goal in ending the stigma surrounding visible and invisible disabilities is to communicate, ask questions, and educate. When we all seek to understand one another, barriers truly start to fall down.