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Despite the discussions of mental health that are happening campus-wide at Cornell, six women believe not enough attention has been given to the mental health issues among women of color.

After nine months of planning, a summit that focuses on these issues took place on recently under the theme “The I of the Storm: Finding Calm Amongst Chaos.” The hosting organization, Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service, hopes the attendees can learn more about dealing with mental health issues through workshops and activities.

“I think that conversations about the really heavy stuff, conversations about depression … conversations about suicidality … about domestic abuse, aren’t often had with women of color and about women of color at the forefront, but it is something that disproportionately affects us,” said Amber Haywood ’21, mental health summit chair for BOSS.

According to Haywood, mental health conversations at Cornell do not address women of color adequately, mentioning that two women of color died by suicide on campus last year and did not receive much attention.

“That in and of itself shows enough that we are a silent voice and we are also a body, that we have physical bodies that are affected by the silence from other people,” she said.

Approximately 50 people attended the summit, which began with midnight yoga on the first day, providing an opportunity for attendees to relax, and ended two days later with a Sunday brunch.

On the second day of the summit, the organization hosted 10 different workshops on topics including body image, student activism, and relationships. The workshops were hosted by professionals from Cornell Health and the Title IX Office, as well as student leaders from organizations such as Cornell Minds Matter and La Asociación Latina.

In a workshop about student activism and mental health, students shared ways they decompress after dealing with heavy issues. For example, Natalia Hernandez ’21 talked about how taking walks helped her cope with the racially charged incident that happened at the Latino Living Center while she lived there.

At another workshop, Theoria Cason, a representative from the Title IX office, talked about about how social media can impact the perception of a relationship and the varying signs of unhealthy relationships and domestic abuse.

Dior Vargas, a Latina feminist mental health activist, discussed the importance of representing people of color and their mental health beyond statistics in the keynote address. Vargas is the editor of “The Color of My Mind,” a 2018 photo essay about people of color and mental health based on a 2014 photo series about the same topic.

According to Vargas, although statistics can provide useful information about misdiagnoses, estimation of pain, and limited access to quality care, they “weren’t telling the whole story” and lack “humanizations of this subject.”

Vargas showed a few excerpts from the photo essay during her speech and talked about the “personal touch” the photographs brought.

“There is a familiarity with these faces because these are people that look like us,” Vargas said. “They also show a side of mental illness that people rarely see. It shows the ability to move forward, to be successful, and to accomplish what we want in life.”

She also addressed how mental health should be an important part of the concept of the American dream.

“We raise our families thinking and talking about how living the American Dream is where we have a big job, a partner, children, food on the table, a home,” Vargas said. “Why isn’t mental health apart of that? When you don’t have good mental health, it is hard to maintain a job, have good relationships, and other essential things.”

The first summit was held in 2015 and was only one day long, but this year the summit expanded and even had attendees from other colleges.

Stephanie Carter ’17, co-founder of BOSS, acknowledged the growing diversity of BOSS and the summit and how they changed from primarily catering to African-American women to more women of color, including Asian-American, Latinx, Native American, and queer women.

“I think there can’t really be diversity without inclusivity,” Carter said. “We were trying to be more conscious of catering to all identities.”

Haywood also spoke about how the decision to include a workshop about body image hosted by Cornell Health is an example of a subject that uniquely affects women of color.

“I think women of color have a really unique position with body image that our bodies are normally hyper- or desexualized constantly,” Haywood said. “One [reason they chose the topic] is to realize how white standards have come to be so normative and how we can disrupt that and love our own bodies.”

In future, Haywood hopes that discussions about women of color will be integrated into conversations about mental health and not be a side topic.

“This isn’t meant to be a lecture series,” Haywood said. “It’s supposed to be the starting point of conversations.”

Originally published at www.cornellsun.com.

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