Russell Fascione – Active Minds Blog Changing the conversation about mental health Mon, 10 Jul 2017 17:03:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Religion, Faith, Spirituality, and Mental Health. Where’s the crossroads? Tue, 30 May 2017 15:17:29 +0000

Religion…. A word that comes with baggage. What’s the first thing you think when you hear “religion”? Perhaps you think of your religion, church, or other place of worship. Perhaps you think about the controversy that has surrounded religion and all the negative that has come out of it.

Spirituality…. Definitely associated with religion, but probably evoking more thoughts about how one internally understands their religion or belief system.

Faith…. Now personally, this is a hard one for me to pin down. Faith, to define it succinctly, is belief/confidence/trust in someone or something. In terms of religion, your faith is your confidence in the truth, as you understand it, in a belief system, whether that’s an organized religion or your own belief system.

My own experience with faith and religion goes something like this:

When I was a teenager, for probably a multitude of minuscule reasons, I didn’t like religion [as I understood it] and I certainly didn’t like church. I didn’t get it. When I was 15 or 16 years old, in a deep depression and dealing with more than I had the capacity or will to understand, I spent a lot of time watching documentaries. It was just what I did when I wanted to shut out the world around me. One day I turned on PBS and found myself just in time for the beginning of a documentary called “The Buddha”. It was about the Buddha’s life and the beginnings of Buddhism. I was enthralled. I mean, usually I’d watch a documentary and think ‘yeah that was interesting’ and move on. But this time, I couldn’t get this story out of my head. I spent a lot of time after that studying Buddhism on the internet. I read about principles, practices, and meditations (though I never gave them a solid shot in practice). Eventually, I had learned all that I cared to as an outsider to the religion.

Two years later, my interest was revitalized and I started reading again, and this time not just about the religion. I started reading the scripture. I learned about Buddhist meditation and started meditating. This time was much better. It was shortly after this that I understood faith for the first time. I mean really understood it. No joke, I was meditating one morning when I had a bit of an epiphany. “What if it (i.e. organized religion) is all just made up and faith is something that we feel in our hearts? What if there is no one correct religion or belief system? What if some people are just wired to feel faith through God? And others in nature? Or in any particular scripture?”

Those thoughts kind of blew my mind. But it wasn’t just that I had this revelation in my conceptual understanding of religion. I realized that I now knew what faith felt like, and truthfully, I don’t really know how to explain that feeling, but it felt good.

From that point on I was compelled to adopt compassion and appreciation for the world and the people around me as the foundations of my belief system, and this gave me the happiness and sense of satisfaction I had been seeking for a long time, which I can only imagine is the same feeling that other people get from their religion/faith. I also started to understand religious communities and their importance. I learned that religion/spirituality/faith is something personal, and when you feel attached to your faith, your entire state of well being is elevated.

Now, of course, this is merely my personal understanding, based on my experience, of how faith and religion/spirituality can help improve mental health. Therefore, I’ve done some snooping around the internet for you.

According to NAMI, faith and spirituality can improve mental well being by providing people with an increased sense of togetherness and community, a sense of understanding, and increased opportunities to help others. Taking the time to learn about faith-based practices can also give you the opportunity to learn new perspectives, habits, and tools to improve your well being. Some people find solace in praying, reading, singing, or making art, just to name a few examples. For many people the ritual involved in some religious practices is also beneficial. For me, meditation, positive social interactions, and remembering what Buddhism has taught me are my most important self-care practices.

Sure, religion can be a hard topic to approach in some environments, and sometimes it comes with negative connotations that make it look intimidating or difficult or judgmental, and that’s just about the last thing we need when we’re living with or recovering from a mental health challenge. You could say that religion has a certain stigma attached to it, but that’s our specialty, right? Besides, the good news is that religion and spirituality are not scary and they’re not there to make you into someone you’re not.

Don’t get me wrong, spirituality isn’t a cure-all for mental disorders. It also isn’t a one size fits all, with many people never even feeling the need to have a spiritual or religious connection, and that’s perfectly okay. However, if faith is something you’re looking for, I’d be willing to bet that you can find something that’s going to float your Ark, if you know what I mean. For students, I’d highly recommendation taking a look around your campus or your school’s website. Maybe there’s an office of Religious Life or a webpage that lists all of the active student groups or affiliated places of worship in the community. Then, do yourself a favor and reach out to them. Find out about upcoming events or weekly worship times. In my experience, faith communities have been some of the most welcoming groups of people I’ve ever met.

Or maybe you already knew all of this and I’m preaching to the choir (pun definitely intended). And maybe your chapter is interested in tackling the subject on your campus. What then? Why not reach out to a religious or spiritual group on campus? Maybe suggest a collaboration in the form of a discussion about mental health and religion. Or find a film or television show that introduces the topic and have a public showing (with snacks of course). Or do some more research and then table about the benefits of religious/spiritual connection on mental health and start a discussion that way. Get creative and don’t be afraid to start an awkward or difficult conversation. I mean that’s what we do here at Active Minds, right?

Russell is a member of the Active Minds Student Advisory Committee and a chapter leader at the University of Maine.

My Experience (so far) on the Student Advisory Committee, and 4 Reasons Why YOU Should Apply Fri, 02 Dec 2016 14:37:11 +0000 15000106_10208838917183369_8031423272552835394_o
Me and just some of the members of the SAC at #MHCC16

This is my first year as a member of the SAC and let me tell you, friend, I am so glad that I applied. Being on the SAC is unique in the sense that it’s not a paid job, it’s not an internship, and it’s probably not like any other volunteering you’ve ever done. It’s hard to describe what being on the SAC is like, but if you love Active Minds and are still going to be a student next academic year, read on for my top 4 reasons why you should think about applyig:

1. Having an even greater say in the things that affect your chapter

You know the National staff loves to hear from you anyways, right? Good. Not going to lie, I can’t imagine myself just emailing with some random initiative idea that I had while trying to fall asleep last night (not to say you can’t do that)! One of great things about being on the SAC is that the staff actively asks us for feedback and ideas based on what we see as needs of our campus populations. Honestly, it’s a cool position to be in, and it’s definitely made me reflect more on what my campus is doing well or not so well and what my chapter can do to help.

And if your brain is just overflowing with ideas about programs, fundraising, and new initiatives, you can stop reading at this point and just go ahead and apply now.

2. Making new friends

Two amazing #stigmafighters; one from Ohio, the other from Alaska, connected via the SAC

If your chapter’s anything like mine, your meetings are half business and half hangout sessions with friends. Why? Because you appreciate and support each other, and you’re confident that you can talk candidly about mental health and personal issues without that lack of understanding that sometimes exists in other social circles. Getting together with the SAC is like a big chapter meeting… except you’re all from different schools and have different experiences to share. Even having only met my fellow SAC members once or twice each (at the spring retreat in April and at conference in November), I feel like some strong friendships have been made and I know that this group of peers has my back. If I have a question regarding my chapter, schoolwork, or mental health I can reach out to this group of folks and they’ll help me out. That’s pretty dang special.

3. Working with the National staff!

Just a very small group of the great staff members behind the work we do!

Behind each of those great emails about chapter resources, news and announcements, or copious reminders to fill out this semester’s chapter inventory is a great staff member. As a chapter member, you might only communicate with a few of them but let me assure you, behind all of the work that Active Minds does and the support that they give us across the country is a lot of time spent networking with other organizations and media outlets, answering emails, and expanding on all the great stuff we’re already doing. All of it is made possible by this small group of incredibly dedicated folks. Personally, I find that pretty inspiring. Also, they’re all really nice, I promise.

4. It’s great experience and a big resume booster

Me and the other SAC members led discussions and sessions at #MHCC16. Here’s the “small schools” breakout session.

Obviously the resume boost isn’t the most important thing, but it’s a great side effect if you want to go into mental health advocacy or work for a non-profit in the future. While all of the work I’ve done as part of the SAC has been rewarding and the experience has been like no other, it’s also been quite rewarding to learn a bit about the operational side of Active Minds at the national level. Maybe it’s just me but seeing how things work under the surface of what we do gives me plenty of ideas (more of them than I have time to act on!) and insights to take back to my own chapter and campus community.

Like what you’ve read so far? Have ideas that you want to share with the entire Active Minds network? Itching to meet some of your peers from all around the country? Apply for the SAC before January 15!

The Green Necklace Fri, 28 Oct 2016 16:04:34 +0000 rf“Stigma causes shame, shame causes silence, silence hurts us all”

From the first time I read this, I was intrigued. Intrigued in a positive way for sure, but I couldn’t quite figure out why.

I joined Active Minds at the University of Maine just a couple weeks into my first semester. Almost instantly I felt connected to our mission and the importance of ending stigma. Coincidentally, every year around the beginning of October, UMaine hosts a suicide prevention walk. Seeing as the walk’s purpose aligns so much with our mission, my chapter always gets involved by walking as a team, helping to advertise, volunteering, or all of the above. So during my freshman year, just weeks into being an Active Minds member, I was volunteering with my chapter setting up and get ready for walkers to arrive when someone informed us that the bead necklaces that they make available for participants to wear were out. The beads, which they call honor beads, use different colors to signify your connection to the cause: Blue means you support the cause, purple means you’ve lost a friend to suicide, orange means you lost a sibling, green means you’ve personally struggled, etc. We proceeded to each put on a blue one and a few people grabbed a purple one, too.

I stared at the pile of green necklaces like it was taunting me. There I was, with this new-found passion for fighting the stigma and promoting positive conversation, and yet I was afraid to mark myself as someone who has struggled with suicidal thoughts. I looked around and saw that another chapter member had put a green one on so I followed suit, suddenly less afraid to out myself.

For weeks after the walk, this hesitation to admit my struggles, even in an environment that I knew wouldn’t judge me, plagued my mind. Eventually I realized that to not wear those beads would have been a form of silence for me. Silence that was rooted in shame, which was rooted in all of the stigma that I had internalized as a teenager. I realized that even as someone who would label himself a mental health advocate I was caught right in the trap of stigma, the kind that convinces you to stay silent because that’s what feels safe. When you’re silent, no one can criticize you for your problems or the shame they make you feel. When you’re silent, as far everyone else is concerned, you’re okay. And for years that had been good enough for me. But suddenly it wasn’t anymore. That green necklace was like the key to a door which opened into a sense of empowerment that I hadn’t known before. If stigma caused shame, which caused silence, then can’t breaking our silence challenge our shame and ultimately reduce the stigma that oppresses everything in its path? The more I thought about it, the more I felt energized by this revelation. Silence became an adversary, just like stigma. One I vowed to fight with my own voice.

That was three years ago, and my affinity for connecting with others and storytelling has been growing ever since. I’ve realized that my personal connection to stigma is defined by silence. I’ve also realized that my tendency to be silent is a battle that I still fight sometimes, and getting to this point didn’t happen overnight. Silence still feels more comfortable at times, but I’ve learned time and time again that it is not nearly as rewarding as being open and using my voice to educate, advocate, and connect with others. Every time I’m able to share a piece of my story, I hope that I’m helping to open a door for someone else.

As I write this, the annual UMaine suicide prevention walk is less than a week away, and I can’t wait to put on the green beads again and connecting with others who have been affected by suicide and mental illness. I think that’s what keeps me coming back to this mission. It’s what has me walking into every chapter meeting with the energy of a kid when the recess bell rings.

Russell is a chapter leader at Active Minds at the University of Maine and a member of the Active Minds Student Advisory Committee.

Changing the Conversation Tue, 13 Sep 2016 13:00:56 +0000 Russell Fascione is a member of the Active Minds Student Advisory Committee.

“Like… I get that it’s not the person’s fault really but… suicide is pretty selfish when you think about it.”


Instantly, it was like somebody lit that spark in my mind that never fails to ignite my passion for mental health advocacy. For me, there’s something about stigma that turns an ordinary passion into the sort of fire that you can just see in someone’s eyes.

The above sentence was said to me (paraphrased, of course) a couple of years ago. I was tabling with a fellow Active Minds member and a friend of hers had joined us to hang out. I think we were tabling about suicide, which is why the subject came up.

My immediate reaction when she said this was to be offended. Did she really have the nerve to say that while we were tabling about suicide prevention? Once I took a step back from my emotion I realized that she didn’t mean to insult anyone. She probably didn’t understand how stigmatizing it can be to label suicide as “selfish.” How could I expect her to understand when the topic of suicide is so seldom discussed in our society?

“The thing about suicide is….” I paused, not wanting to offend her or make her think she offended me, “Even if we can call the act of attempting suicide selfish, the person behind it is not acting out of selfishness… if that makes sense.”

I could tell she was truly listening to what I was saying, so I continued. “When someone is so far into that dark place that they want to end their life, they might not be thinking about who their actions are going to hurt. Maybe they are in too much pain to think about it. And even if they are aware of how it might impact their loved ones, the desire to end their pain may have become too great to bear anymore.”

If I remember correctly, that’s about all I said. I could’ve gone in-depth about the known risk factors for suicidal behavior. I could have explained how feeling like a burden (a common experience of those contemplating suicide) might make someone think that they’re doing their loved ones a favor by taking their own life, which might completely negate any feelings of selfishness or guilt that they might have had. However, I could tell she was really considering what I had just said, and I didn’t want to go too far and overwhelm her.

The notion that suicide is selfish is something I had spent a great deal of time thinking about.

When I was 14 I felt so incredibly guilty for wanting to die, because I knew that if I killed myself my family would be devastated. For years, that guilt and the selfishness that I felt for thinking about suicide kept me from reaching out for help. All of the stigma about suicide–much of which I had internalized–had me convinced that it was better to suffer in silence than to have someone else think what I did: that I was selfish for wanting to die. I’ll never know for sure if that guilt had pushed me closer to the edge or further from it, but I do know that I’m grateful to be alive.

Make no mistake, I didn’t lose any respect for this acquaintance because of her statement, and there was no animosity created between us. In fact I’m glad she said what she said, because it reminded me that the stigma we need to face is not just in the media and our larger social systems, but in the people around us who don’t even realize that these ideas are stigmatizing.

It’s one of the things that make the work that we all do as Active Minds members or in other advocacy settings that much more important. I also realized that it was important for me to listen and understand where she was coming from too, because a one-sided conversation is not a productive conversation, especially in the pursuit of social change.

Being part of the social movement against mental health stigma can be difficult and discouraging, especially with the seemingly endless sea of misinformation and disrespect shown in various media outlets, but it’s worth it. Thinking back, it makes me happy to remember how respectful and thoughtful that conversation was. It gives me hope to know that “fighting” the stigma doesn’t have to be a fight, sometimes it’s as simple as a conversation.

I wanted to share this story here because I hope to see a day in which we can completely put to rest the idea that victims of suicide are selfish, weak, or otherwise bad people, and think instead with empathy by making an effort to understand what someone might be going through if they are contemplating suicide.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “BRAVE” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line.