Graduating Survivor Finds Peace in Advocacy

The Towson University Counseling Center is located on the second floor of the health center at Ward and West. The center offers free, short-term counseling therapy services for students, faculty and staff. (Photo by: Sarah Rowan/TU Student)
The Towson University Counseling Center is located on the second floor of the health center at Ward and West. The center offers free, short-term counseling therapy services for students, faculty and staff. (Photo by: Sarah Rowan/TU Student)

18-year-old high school senior Jenna Kahn sealed the fold on a white envelope and put it on her desk. She slowly reached for a black Sharpie marker, writing “Mom” in large letters on the front, before placing it in a pile with similarly marked envelopes.

Dressing for the day, Kahn opened her jewelry box, looking for her favorite earrings and necklace. They were not there – she had given her jewelry away, along with many other possessions.

Kahn was preparing to end her life.

“I didn’t want to die,” Kahn said. “No one who is suicidal wants to die. They just want the pain to stop.”

Kahn grew up in Germany and lived there until she was 16 years old. Her father, a linguist working for the United States government, was often forced to move around for his work, taking his family with him.

After Kahn suffered a major depressive episode in Berlin resulting from a sexual assault, the United States government intervened and medically evacuated Kahn and her family to Annapolis, Maryland.

“When you’re overseas for the government, they’re responsible for you,” Kahn said. “They were responsible for me in that they said ‘you need to get this figured out.’ That’s when I was medically evacuated.”

Officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder at 18 years old, Kahn is now a 22-year-old college senior preparing to graduate from Towson University in December with an English major and a German minor.

About 26 percent of Americans aged 18 and older live with a diagnosable mental illness, according to data from the Active Minds national chapter. Adults between the ages of 18 years old and 24 years old are the least likely age range of adults to seek help through counseling and therapy, compared to older adults.

1,100 college students commit suicide each year, making suicide the second leading cause of death on college campuses. Between 80 and 90 percent of college students who committed suicide were not receiving counseling or therapy services from their campus health centers at the time of their death, according to Active Minds.

Towson University senior Callie Vislay is the vice president of Towson’s chapter of Active Minds, a mental health advocacy group that works to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness on campus.

Vislay, a communications major with a minor in women and gender studies, recognized the prevalence of health resources on campus and the importance of seeking help to tackle difficult mental health issues.

“I think there’s never going to be a time where you have more resources available to you than when you are at college,” Vislay said. “There’s never going to be a time when you need them more than in college. It’s such a concentrated area…and so I think that can breed a lot of problems.”

Towson University’s Counseling Center, located on the second floor of the health center at Ward and West, offers free, short-term therapy services to students, faculty and staff seeking help for mental health issues.

They address concerns such as anxiety, self-esteem, alcohol problems, life planning, relationships, body image issues, among others. The center also offers free, eight to 10 week group therapy sessions for undergraduate and graduate students to meet with people experiencing similar issues.

Despite having access to the counseling center on campus, some students are still unsure about taking advantage of the services, according to associate professor of counseling psychology Danice Brown.

“Even though I think we’ve done a great job in working around the stigma that happens with mental illness, there are still folks out there who aren’t as excited or as motivated to go to counseling services,” Brown said.

Brown teaches a graduate-level group counseling psychology course that is required of all Towson graduate students in the psychology program. In this class, graduate students works together to colead psychoeducational group classes that typically involved anywhere from four to six undergraduate students each.

These classes teach undergraduate participants about topics such as self-care, stress management, mindfulness and self-assertiveness.

“It introduces them to the idea of what could happen in therapy,” Brown said. “[The groups] are a place for students who don’t know a lot about the counseling classes.”

For some students, campus groups like Active Minds provide another space for them to learn how to manage their own mental health concerns.

“Active Minds’ big message is acceptance,” Vislay said. “Mental illness is everywhere. It’s not something to be afraid of and it’s not something to shy away from. Seeking help for it is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.”

During the year, Active Minds hosts different events that provide students an opportunity to practice self-care and discuss their own experiences with mental illness.

For Vislay, one of the most thought-provoking events Active Minds hosted was the fall 2015 “In My Mind: Hope ‘n Mic Night,” featuring guest performer and slam poet Neil Hilborn, who gained recognition for his poem “OCD” and for his poetry collection “Our Numbered Days.”

During the event, held in the Paws lounge, both Hilborn and Towson students performed poems, songs and dance.  

“I loved just hearing everybody’s own artworks,” Vislay said. “I just loved seeing how people interpreted their own experiences with mental illness into some form of art.”

Events like these, Vislay said, help to reduce mental health stigma on campus and nationwide.

“In some ways I think people just don’t realize how these trivializations of mental illness can be really hurtful,” Vislay said. “The more knowledge you have about individual mental illnesses or self-care or therapy, it’s only going to improve your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you.”

For Kahn, this knowledge comes in the form of an online blog, which began as a fashion blog in high school. After her hospitalization and her diagnosis, she began writing about mental health as an opportunity to tell people the truth behind its various stigmas.

“I was curious at what would happen if I just spilled my guts and told them all ‘you know what, I was going to kill myself, and I didn’t and this is why,’” Kahn said.

Kahn, who discovered a passion for literary arts during her junior year of college, has found writing as a valuable coping mechanism for her own diagnosis.

“I was able to verbalize it,” Kahn said. “That’s how I get through things, by writing. By writing what I was going through, it was able to help me find my place in it all.”

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