One gesture and my day was ruined. One phrase and I would shut down. Images would flash to the forefront of my mind. I would stop talking. I would stay silent.
In middle school, life is hardly bearable, but even then, I had a secret that made it worse. My brother died by suicide. This secret was a large shadow that seemed to cast itself over my heart. If my friend made the gesture to shoot herself or someone else said that the class they were in made them want to kill themselves, I would fold into my mind with dangerous thoughts: If only they knew what that actually meant… if they knew the pain…
In search of a voice that could say the words I had not in those moments, I found mental illness awareness week. The green ribbon gave me hope. Others were talking about this. It was not just a world of dark family secrets where hushed tones tell you who is bipolar, who is depressed, and who is manic. There were others willing to say what was being silenced and that is why there is a week to speak out.
I bought the ribbon early before school. Setting up shop with my packed lunch and self-assembly line of green ribbons. I asked any person walking past if they wanted a green ribbon. Most looked at me in a funny way when I explained what it was for. Some grabbed a ribbon to be polite. However, I found those who really stopped and thanked me with their eyes or even a kind phrase, “This is really important.” I nodded, reassuring them that they could trust me with this responsibility. I could pass on this knowledge and for many, I could pass on hope. Hope that they are not alone. Hope that they don’t have to be a family secret or a shadow.
From that point on, every year I have passed out green ribbons for mental illness awareness week. I have kept my tradition, recruiting people no matter where I go. I knew this the first day I moved into the residence halls as a first-year student.
My RA asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I replied, “Yeah! Is it okay if I get a group of students from the floor to pass out ribbons for mental illness awareness week in October? Does the school allow me to do that?”
He stayed silent for a while and then responded, “Celebration at Mines is coming up. Just go find a group called Active Minds and see if they will help you with that. If they don’t, grab some people from the floor.”
I don’t need to mention that advocacy changed my perception, gave me hope, and changed my life. I just need to mention that what I do is important. What we all do is so very important.
When you’re standing in the rain passing out ribbons at a table. When you create a presentation for your meeting only to walk into an empty room. When you ask your professors time and time again to not make things worse for students with illnesses. All of those times matter. Because without those times, you wouldn’t have reached the people you have reached. By getting through the times where there is no support, you have shined a light into another person’s life. I wish someone had been there for me in middle school but it’s okay. I found a green ribbon and that is all I needed to be there for someone else and continue to be there.
Tara is a member of the Active Minds Student Advisory Committee and a chapter leader at Colorado School of Mines. Mental Illness Awareness Week runs through the first full week of October every year.