May 19, 2023

By Nicole Muczynska

Illustration of college kids celebrating
I joined NAMI on Campus, a peer-run mental health organization for college students, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — a time that was difficult for the entire world. I was distraught when I was told that in-person classes would not resume during my freshman year of college, especially because I had just started settling in and feeling comfortable in my new environment.

My anxiety increased dramatically, and I constantly worried about my future and the greater implications of an unprecedented pandemic. Recognizing that I was struggling, I decided to join NAMI on Campus during my second semester.

Finding My Community

Joining that community was one of the best decisions I could have made for my mental health. I socialized and made new friends during a time that was otherwise isolating, and I had the opportunity to build a community where I felt safe, heard and understood. I was inspired by my fellow students’ passion for opening up the mental health conversation and helping people struggling with mental health conditions.

Hearing their ideas for addressing mental health in the university setting was a powerful reminder that we can be powerful advocates for the future. Perhaps most importantly, I had a place where I could share my own story. For the first time, I was able to talk about my struggles with anxiety among peers who could relate to the experience. In this new community, I never felt like I was alone.

The peer support and connection extended beyond our virtual meetings during quarantine. When we returned to our college campus, our meetings and my relationships with NAMI on Campus members continued to grow. As we adjusted back to our new normal, we could lean on and encourage each other to keep pushing through our challenges. I remain close with many of my group members. They continue to give me hope for recovery.

Sharing Resources, Fighting Stigma and Creating Change

The work of NAMI on Campus extends beyond offering a listening ear to its members. We have hosted on-campus events and open meetings where students can learn more about NAMI and get access to local mental health resources. This piece of our activism is critical; after witnessing the mental health crisis among college students, I firmly believe that more young adults should know about NAMI and feel empowered to access the resources available to them. I hope that our efforts will help students recognize if they need help and guide them to the best resources for early intervention.

NAMI on Campus also provides the opportunity to participate in and further the evolving mental health conversation in this country. Unfortunately, there is still a pervasive stigma surrounding mental health, but my new community has taught me that we can end stigma, one person at a time. With each event we host, we’re reaching someone new who will be an asset in changing our collective thinking about mental health. If we’re open about our struggles and journeys, we can remind our peers that they are not alone — and taking steps to improve our mental health is something to be proud of.

Advancing the mental health conversation also requires advocating for structural change. Our NAMI on Campus club has educated students about writing letters to government officials, urging them to prioritize the creation and funding of quality and accessible mental health resources. We have also hosted life-changing guest speakers — including campus professors, community therapists and past NAMI Executive Board members — who remind us of the wider importance of this work; we need solutions for those in our own communities and beyond.

Finding My Purpose

As someone who also struggles with perfectionism and anxiety, I spent my early days of college worrying about making a mistake and not doing what I am “supposed to do” with my life. NAMI on Campus not only helped me to let go of this kind of thinking, but it also helped me discover my greater purpose.

I am passionate about making a difference in the world through mental health advocacy. I have become more confident in talking about mental health, and I even pushed for change on my college campus. I have organized student-led candlelight walks to honor the lives that have been lost to mental illness, spoken with different student organizations to raise awareness about mental health conditions, and I have given students information to access the mental health resources available to them on campus. In the future, I want to do this work more widely.

This is not always an easy task. Making big changes takes patience and resilience but knowing there are people who support our mission continues to motivate me.

 

Nicole Muczynska is the Vice President of NAMI on Campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently majoring in social work and creative writing, and her future goal is to direct her creative passions toward helping individuals struggling with mental health. You can follow her university’s NAMI on Campus Instagram account at @uiucnami.

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