You never know when a simple class project will grow to be so much more

by Brittany Hawley, ’17

Far too often, people struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts battle in silence. Perhaps due to societal stigmas, they fear judgment, feel like no one hears their voice, or simply do not know how to express what’s going on.

As someone who struggles with depression, I found a way to bring awareness to this topic through an unexpected opportunity in one of my sociology courses, Social Hacktivism. I didn’t real­ize at the time how one assignment would open doors and make connections for me beyond the classroom walls.

The premise was simple—choose a social justice topic, do whatever you want (legal, of course), and incorporate social media. Sociology Chair Dr. Angela Barian has a way of encouraging students to change the world, telling us we have the capability, even when it seems unlikely. Her encouragement helped bring my project to life.

I never thought “It’s Time to Talk about Mental Illness Because” would get so much publicity. Featuring more than 180 people holding signs with their personal responses to why it’s time to talk, I released the video online in November 2015. People —even strangers—messaged me to say they felt less alone and share how the video affected them.

And, if I wasn’t already surprised by all the at­tention the video received in that first month, I received an email from a Milwaukee Magazine journalist requesting an interview for a mental health feature. I never imagined a small class proj­ect like mine would be published in a magazine. But it was, and I was ecstatic.

The following semester, another sociology course, Death and Dying, required a project on death. My first thought was to do a sequel to “It’s Time.”

I knew this had to continue the conversation start­ed in the first video. Untreated depression can lead to suicide (this is actually the second leading cause of death of college students). I wanted the message to be personal, especially since I have worked in suicide prevention, facilitated “Question, Persuade, Refer” sessions and heard sto­ries of attempts, loss and pain. The final project featured 235 people—including re­nowned psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy —who sent messages to people strug­gling with depression. If making the video meant that one person felt less alone or reached out for help, it would be worth it. And it was.

At the end of my junior year, I received the Cardinal Stritch University Multicultural Image Award and the Newman Civic Fellows Award, a national honor recognizing civic involvement and leader­ship. There are no words to describe how grateful I am to know I made a difference.

The momentum continued to build in May 2016 when I was invited to an international conference in Washington D.C. to discuss sustainable develop­ment goals. I felt excited to be invited and share my passion for mental health on a national level.

I stayed in D.C. for a week, having meaningful conversations about the world, change, and how college students can make an impact. (I blogged about the conference here.) I knew that a lot of history happens in the nation’s capi­tal, but being surrounded by it made me rather reflective about life. One reflection started at the Lincoln Memorial.

I stood at the top of the stairs and looked at the reflection pool and the Washington Monument. More than 50 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood there, giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. I got chills thinking of the history made in this very spot. One day, I, or someone I know, could be making a speech like that. Better yet, someone could make such a profound impact on people’s lives that she or he would be remem­bered for generations.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to hope millions of people will remember you like they remember MLK. But you, or I, or we together could make that kind of difference. I plan to keep trying to do good things and spread some light into this world. And I hope you will, too. Because you matter—whether to mil­lions or just one. You definitely matter.

Brittany Hawley, ’17, is a senior at Cardinal Stritch University. She is majoring in psy­chology and sociology, with minors in di­versity studies and communications. After graduation, Hawley plans to go to graduate school and pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology, specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. She works in the Office of University Advancement as a communications intern, serves as a crisis counselor, and is founder of Stritch Against Human Trafficking.