By Petra Dujmic
Petra pictured with members of her school newspaper.
“Neuro nada”—“Neuro hope” in Croatian. I put the two words together when I was a child, sitting on the concrete steps of our family’s sweltering summer house in Croatia. My crocs had started to feel uncomfortable under the heat of the sun, so I ran inside with my book and now sat with my calves against the cool steps. Something wasn’t right. My aunt should have come out of her room by now, pacing the hallway with her face turned towards the rugged carpet, murmuring words I could not make out into her chin. Where were her accusatory silioques, imaginative monologues, and other hallmarks of her mental illness? And why had I journeyed to the hallway when my mom had told me to steer clear of this area only a few hours ago? Something told me to stay. A few moments later, I found out the cause of the unusual silence. “Why is she crying?” I asked my mom who, herself a psychiatrist, know how to handle these situations. She smiled sadly in response and said only this: “Suffering will do that to us.”
Ten years later and I am just beginning to decode the undertones of that message. My main take-away point: It’s not that you scratch us and we can all bleed; it’s that you hurt us and we can all cry. In other words, although the state of pain marks a common experience, it’s the feeling of that pain that makes the experience human. How to urge my community, my culture, and the rest of the world to not only acknowledge the humanity of the mentally ill, but embrace it? That became my question from them on.
My partial answer has been to mobilize the growing resources of neuroscience education to contribute to the brilliant global mental health awareness campaign. Last year, I brought together a few fellow optimists to launch a small neuroscience club in Croatia, under the name of Neuro_Nada. Although we’re still a fairly small group, none of us shy away from our excitingly large goal: to implement neuroscience education as a tool against stigmatization in Croatia, via a neuroscience blog and engagement in awareness activities. But online events and communication—although undoubtedly important—can not be the substitute to engagement with real people in our community. As history class has often taught me, impactful leadership is not always comfortable. Being so vulnerable as to risk one’s social reception in order to advocate for a noble cause—that, to me, is a sign of not only much-needed leadership, but of even more needed courage. It so easy for myself and my peers to simply hide behind our phones and post flyers on social media whenever events like World Mental Health day roll around. It is relatively easy for me to post announcements to my Neuro_Nada team, most of whom live in Croatia, about new opportunities or blog developments. But how easy is it for me—or for anyone, for that matter—to get up in front of a crowd of 50 or so peers they see everyday, to voice concerns about one of the most vulnerable aspects of our humanity?
Needless to say a great amount of fortitude is required, to swallow reputation in favor of advocacy—a great amount of fortitude that I am just starting to develop, thanks to the IBPF. Most people would regard essay contests as just a matter of theorizing insightful ideas and putting them into words that read nicely on paper. To me, the IBPF’s essay contest was more than that. It was the stimulus that finally pushed me to undertake projects necessitating courage I didn’t think I possessed. I finally came to realize the meaning of my English teacher’s words when she told our fretful class before a presentation, “The cause you are advocating for is more important than your fear of being judged.” That’s not to say that I still don’t fear judgement—as a high school senior, I’m certainly still curious as to how others perceive me, and I think it would be a bit unnatural if I wasn’t. It’s just that now, as a result of learning from my guidance counselor that my school has done little to promote community-wide awareness, the need to take some sort of a stand is more apparent to me. After participating in the IBPF’s essay contest, I’ve joined my school’s newspaper team as a reporter for mental health initiatives in the Boston area. In addition to introducing students to organizations like Active Minds, I also strive to publicize my school’s mental health services and programs (which include schedule changes for underclassmen and mental health speakers, among others). Fast forward to March (Brain Awareness Week month!), I hope to implement small WIN block events during which my classmates and I can watch TED talks relating to neuroscience research developments and learn of mental health initiatives within my school and in the Boston area.
But the IBPF has not only introduced me to weak areas of advocacy within my school community. It has also urged me to research the current state of mental health awareness in the U.S., and although I am, of course, far from an expert, there are two areas of the national mental health campaign that I hope to draw attention to. The first is the issue of what I’d like to refer to as age-wide mental health awareness. Although it, of course, makes sense that much of the mental health campaign has been focused on appealing to a teen audience, I think more resources could be invested to promote awareness among younger students. Although incidences of mental health concerns are considerably less prevalent among younger students, I think that perhaps outreach organizations, especially town-based initiatives, could also publicize children’s support organizations and resources. For children coming from rough domestic backgrounds, being referred by a guidance counselor to join a support group or anti-bullying organization could be critical in helping ease the mental turmoil surrounding family issues. Furthermore, children who, early on in their lives, are shown that mental health concerns are not issues to be ashamed could be more likely to grow into adults who seek support when necessary and respect others mental health concerns. The second issue I’d like to highlight pertains to adults as opposed to children: the issue of mental health discrimination in the workplace. When I join the workforce in a few short years, I hope to meet employers who don’t fire (or immediately neglect to hire) employees who have expressed concerns about their mental wellbeing. I also hope to find affordable housing options for the mentally ill who cannot work in highly paid positions, so that they do not experience homelessness as a result of their illness.
Looking ahead into the future, I’d like to see myself continue to volunteer with student organizations that embrace both neuroscience education and its social justice counterpart of mental health awareness. In addition to the wonderful advocacy work of the IBPF, organizations like the IYNA and Simply Neuroscience greatly inspire me through their promoting a culture of acceptance as opposed to just tolerance. I am humbled to serve in these organizations alongside some of the most ambitious, compassionate students, knowing that our collective work may brighten the reality of a fellow student struggling with depression or anxiety. If, throughout college, I can promote mental health awareness within my Arlington community, I know I will have started my advocacy journey on the right foot. More broadly, if we, as a nation, can make available to every school community information of support methods, and ensure that mental health is not a point of unreasonable employment discrimination, we will have expanded our campaign in the right direction. Most important of all, if we, as a human family, can empathize with the mentally ill, can make them feel as if their struggle is deeply human as opposed to alien, we will have built a base of love on which the hope of life is not so easily struck down. The IBPF, through its encouragement of activism, has contributed to this great movement which I am just beginning to learn of. I hope in my lifetime to compliment the IBPF’s work in preserving that inclusiveness, that support, and that opportunity for the mentally ill which has always been characteristic to me of this nation’s virtues, and of human decency in general.