Unspoken Narratives aims to foster mental health awareness through social media

Feb. 4, 2019, 12:29 a.m.

Unspoken Narratives, a photography initiative aimed at expanding the conversation around students’ mental health through Facebook and Instagram posts, was launched this quarter by the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) Mental Health and Wellness Committee.

After seeking help from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) in her freshman year, Vianna Vo ’21 said she felt that current on-campus mental health resources like CAPS, The Bridge Peer Counseling Center, the Department of Psychiatry and the Confidential Support Team (CST) “are all short-term solutions … that can be a deterrent to some people.”

Vo began organizing Unspoken Narratives after exploring photography in the Introductory Seminar Bio 7N: Introduction to Conservation Photography last winter.

“I knew when I started photography, I wanted to do something more with it,” she said. “[Unspoken Narratives] was inspired a lot by my own experiences in mental health, and a lot of others had questions too.”

“We did a survey earlier in the year, and we found that finances, transportation or getting that appointment is one of the biggest barriers to cure,” she added, referring to accessibility of mental health care.

Unspoken Narratives aims to create a space and supportive community “where it’s okay to be open,” Vo said. The program plans to host a photo exhibition event at the end of winter quarter and potentially create a magazine to be distributed through dorms.

Modeled after Humans of New York, each story and accompanying photograph in Unspoken Narratives highlights the perspective of a featured individual. Some of the featured individuals are anonymous.

Zack Burton, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in geological sciences, shared his story with Unspoken Narratives after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in May 2017.

“Mental illness is often seen as debilitating and it can definitely be that, but people don’t focus so much on people who are simultaneously high-functioning and mentally ill,” Burton said. “That’s the angle of my story. The true problem is the dearth of candid conversation of mental health.”

Motivated by his own experiences, Burton founded Manic Monologues, a play highlighting diverse stories of mental illness to “disrupt stigma through the medium of theater.” Burton said he took inspiration from the Vagina Monologues, a performance piece that began in the late 1990s, focused on liberating female sexuality and body image.

“Mental illness can be included in one of the groups that don’t have a very large public voice,” he said. “We decided that having these open, true stories shown on stage could be a powerful means of not only starting conversation but really trying to erode some of that stigma.”

Manic Monologues’ first performance will premiere May 2-4 in Piggott Theater, where Stanford students and people from across the nation are invited to share stories varying from traditional monologues to slam poems to stand-up comedy sketches.

“The hope is we can do something to make these conversations less painful and hopefully make them normal and just an aspect of our bodies and who we are,” Burton said.

Vo, who plans to help photograph the performances, said both initiatives are timely “with all the lawsuits that have been occurring … and the changes in administration.”

“There’s a community that supports these students here even with all the bad things that we hear about the resources or perhaps Stanford administration,” she said. “We want people to know that it is still possible to seek help at Stanford and there’s a support network available if they reach out.”

Contact Udani Satarasinghe at usatara ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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