ETTRICK — Good weather, good turnout, good cause.
Perhaps it was fitting that Virginia State University’s inaugural Mental Health Walk and Fair was bathed in the bright sunlight of a mid-April morning Monday. After all, the focus of the event was to help bring discussions about mental well-being into the light.
Several hundred students, staff and others with ties to the Ettrick school took part in the event, which not only featured physical exercise in walking along several campus streets, but also gave students the chance to hear from and speak with campus counselors and other professionals about navigating the previous two years of an anything but normal college experience.
Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic invaded Virginia and forced colleges, including VSU, to reinvent teaching and studying, Monday’s activity was seen as breaking out of life inside the pandemic bubble. While many of the several hundred participants opted to wear face masks, the rest chose to breathe, laugh and share unfettered for the first time in what probably felt like two lifetimes.
Marquez Phillips and his friend Brandon Moses could not resist the beat coming from the deejay music on the Foster Hall steps prior to the start of the walk. Surrounded by their budd and fellow students, the two broke out into an impromptu dance.
“It’s not enough light shining on mental health,” Phillips, a senior, said. “I just feel like things like this on campus, to meet people with mental health problems and going through struggles is a good thing so they can come out of their shell and talk and have fun and build the campus community back.”
Added Moses, also a senior, “Mental health is a real problem for everyone whether, you know, it’s admitted or not. Mental health is really big, especially on college campuses, and I feel like that’s something we can always improve on.”
Some students, like senior Tyana Thompson, took part because, as she said, “you never know what anybody is going through,
“And I’d rather be able to be a helping hand than not be able to help at all,” Thompson said.
Jada Sade admitted that taking classes online because of the pandemic “wasn’t good for me” because she thinks she learns better in the traditional in-person classroom.
“It was definitely hard to retain stuff,” Sade, a senior, said. “And I definitely went to a spot where I felt like I couldn’t do it, and that was definitely discouraging. But all in all, I think I kind of mastered it the best way I could.”
VSU student Catelynn Ebuchulam spoke at a rally kicking off the walk. She talked about how she had to force herself to seek help.
“You know, it’s OK to ask for help and I never really wanted to do that. So I had to push myself to do it because I needed it because I was suffering like academically,” Ebuchulam said. “It was easy. So if you ever need to ask for help, don’t be scared even though it feels uncomfortable.”
Alumnus Kimberly Johnson is one of the organizers of the event. She said she saw it as giving back to the university for providing her with the education.
Johnson told the crowd that if they have not experienced mental distress yet “and you keep living, it will show up at your doorstep.”
”Mental health matters,” Johnson said.
In announcing the event, VSU cited a 2021 survey by BestColleges.com that more than 95% of students have been negatively affected mentally by COVID-19. Therefore, the school began a mission to holistically focus on students’ minds as well as their bodies while navigating the pandemic.
The event took place on one of five designated “mental health days” that VSU put into the academic calendar this semester. Instead of the traditional week-long spring break, these days were plugged into different parts of the semester to give students not only a break from class but also a chance to get their minds de-cluttered from learning in a COVID-19 environment.
Junior Charity Alston, an elementary education major, jumped at the chance to do anything to shed the stress of the pandemic. She said being around her friends and sorority sisters has helped bring her smile back, so she wanted to do what she could to bring smiles back to others.
Referring to the pandemic, Alston put it very succinctly: “It’s been an assault on my mental health.”
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Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is a journalist and daily news coach for USA TODAY’ Network’s Atlantic Region which includes Virginia. He is based in Petersburg, Virginia. Reach him at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on The Progress-Index: VSU students, staff raise awareness with inaugural Mental Health Walk