The Gustavian Weekly

Building Bridges aims to end the stigma of mental illness: Student leaders prep for the Building Bridges Conference

By Laura Stickney - Staff Writer | October 6, 2017 | News

Building Bridges sits in the board room viewing a presentation at the beginning of their meeting.

Building Bridges sits in the board room viewing a presentation at the beginning of their meeting.

Building Bridges is poised to start the year strong after announcing its new topic for this year’s conference, “Mental Health as a Social Justice Cause”. With this theme in mind, the organization hopes to focus on raising awareness about the different aspects of mental health and helping the community to understand the social issues related to it.

Building Bridges Co-Chair mentions how this is one of the leading student-led organizations at Gustavus, acting as an important force on campus.

“I think it’s important because there are so many social justice causes in the world, and so many inequities and inequalities everywhere that you could focus on a different social justice cause every week and you would [seek] something to go for,” Toeben said. “And so I think it’s really important that we’re bringing that to our campus and focusing on different social justice causes every year, and then I think Building Bridges does a really great job of trying to keep the ball rolling, so it’s not just the conference, it’s the pre-events and the post-events, and the trying to interact with our campus in all the facets of what that means, and really trying to make something happen.”

Founded in 1996, Building Bridges is a social awareness organization that aims to educate the community about matters concerning social justice and diversity. The group works to shed light on current social justice issues through its annual Building Bridges conference, which features workshops, keynote speakers, and an interactive action piece focused on the year’s theme. A new social justice theme is selected each year by the student-led Building Bridges executive board. Past topics have included modern social issues such as the war on drugs, rape culture, and mass incarceration.

According to remarks from Building Bridges Public Relations Executive Daniella Habib, the conference is predominantly meant to raise awareness about certain issues, it is also meant to inspire others to take action themselves.

“Most importantly we want to give attendees the information and tools to activate their activism and be more involved in whatever cause they feel most passionate about,” Habib said.

Mental health through a social justice lens was a topic that Toeben and her fellow Building Bridges Co-chair Quinn Andersen kept coming back to while brainstorming ideas for a possible theme.

“We kind of tried to explore different options for different topics, and we just kind of came back to mental health as being something that we’re both really passionate about, and as something that we felt was always a backburner to other causes,” Toeben explained. “And, yes, there are so many things that people are passionate about, there are so many different things we could have focused on, but mental health has never really gotten its shine in the glory…it’s never really gotten to be in the forefront, especially viewed as a social justice cause.”

In its quest to educate the community about this theme, the Building Bridges committee will specifically focus on helping people find ways to recognize mental health discrimination, intervene to stop that discrimination, and feel more confident when talking about the topic of mental health.

“One of the things I’m particularly excited about is seeing how mental health affects minorities and/or underserved communities.” Habib said. “Mental health is often stigmatized and/or ignored in such communities, which is something I’ve struggled with as a person of color as well.”

Traditionally held in the spring, this year’s Building Bridges conference will take place on March 3, 2018 and will feature a number of student-organized workshops and speakers. The executive board has already begun contacting potential speakers and planning the schedule of events, which has yet to be finalized.

“Our keynote speakers — we have contracts drafted, but they are not signed, so we are not confirmed on anything yet,” Andersen said. “But our plan will be to have the first morning keynote speaker, and traditionally in the past, they’ve been keynote speakers back to back, but we’re going to do one keynote speaker, do some workshops, break for lunch…have the second keynote speaker and then the action piece, and then the highlighted workshop, which is something that was done for the first time last year.”

As they work to prepare for the conference, the Building Bridges committee hope to secure the support, involvement, and feedback of several departments around campus.

“One really big goal that we have for our conference is to get as many departments involved, so we already have the Counseling Center involved in our executive board and we also have the PEACH office — which is Peer Education and Chemical Health,” Toeben said. “And so we have members from both of those also joining our executive board, so we’re really trying to get a very well-rounded view of how to approach this topic. Then we’re also going to be reaching out to all of the departments to hopefully get people who are really involved in mental health or passionate about that topic to join our executive board committee meetings so we can hear from tham as well.”

The members of Building Bridges appear eager to spread the word about this year’s topic — and this passion for social justice, as well as the organization itself, is a direct reflection of the values of students here at Gustavus.

“I think that it really speaks to who Gustavus students are,” Andersen said, “That we’re both passionate about justice but that…we’re also able to take hold of ourselves and say this is what’s important to us and we will do something about it.”

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