Laurel Stanley, '21, poses for a headshot. Stanley established Lehigh's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to provide a safe space for students to learn and discuss mental health topics. (Courtesy of Laurel Stanley)

National Alliance on Mental Illness creates safe space

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Laurel Stanley’s body froze in the hallways of Bigelow Middle School. 

The insult was shouted from behind her. She closed her eyes, slid down the side of a locker in defeat and crumpled her body into a ball. 

“Laurel is so fat, she clogs up the whole hallway,” her classmate had said. All it took was 10 words. Ten words to begin the biggest fight of her life her fight with anorexia nervosa. An obsession manifested with the number 600: the number of calories she would allow herself to eat each day. She began to feel woozy, weak and depleted. 

Two voices babbled in her brain. She dwelled upon them and stressed that she had to pick one: “please eat” or “no, eating’s a sin.” 

“It was insanity,” she said. 

Stanley, ‘21, decided to get help two years later during her sophomore year at Newton North High School, a few miles away from downtown Boston. Wearing a light blue hospital gown, she stepped on a scale every day so nurses could monitor her weight. 

She began to rebuild her life and realized going forward she wanted others to get help like she did. Now, the Lehigh junior is the vice president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) at her school.

Her eyes became luminous, and a warm smile emerged as she began to speak about her involvement. Over eight years, her obsession morphed into her passion. 

NAMI strives to create a safe space to talk about mental health on campus and encourages students to be empowered with information and tools to get help. 

Its members fill the seats of Room 261 in Rauch Business School every Tuesday night at 5 p.m. to discuss information and brainstorm events for the semester.

Some events are informational more serious and captivating. Others are light-hearted, with members laughing and joking, forgetting the stress of a research paper due. 

“There is a fine line between getting our message across and drawing people in, because people are still afraid to face it,” Stanley said. “The words ‘destigmatize mental illness’ are complicated, and people take a step back from them because it’s a very vulnerable subject.” 

Discussing the signs, symptoms and complexities of mental health is common for 

Timothy Lomauro, a clinical psychologist, clinical supervisor and psychology professor at Lehigh, who works full time at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System, where he counsels cancer patients and palliative care patients. 

Lomauro said he started NAMI around six years ago. He wanted to show members of the Lehigh community how common mental health problems are, and how everyone can be affected personally, or through their family and friends. 

He brings his experiences to the classroom when he teaches abnormal psychology, psychology of trauma, and psychology of body image and eating disorders, and connects them with his lectures to engage his students. 

Lomauro has also sparked conversations allowing students to speak about their own personal experiences with emotional adjustment at Lehigh. His light-hearted personality, wide grin and witty jokes create a comfort level to share such private information. 

He attributes emotional distress to the complications of establishing an identity, the competitive academic nature on campus and developmental factors. 

“It’s a difficult time right now,” he said. 

Students have also expressed these internal battles to NAMI President Melissa Corcione, ‘21, during meetings and events. They feel alone unable to connect with others, Corcione said. 

The expression on her face began to sulk as she spoke about the interactions. She could relate. 

The junior has struggled with the effects of mental illness since she was 12 years old, but lacked an open space to talk about them at home. 

“I wanted to make sure that if I couldn’t find that space for myself growing up, I was able to create it for others,” Corcione said. 

On top of spending nights doing accounting homework at Linderman Library, Corcione has worked to increase the number of events on campus. 

Last year, NAMI raised $2,000 for The Quell Foundation, which attempts to reduce suicides related to mental illness, and partnered with fraternities and sororities for de-stressing events, like coloring, and petting bunnies and dogs. 

The organization also screened “Lift the Mask – Portraits of Life with Mental Illness,” shadowing it in daily life. 

Curious to learn more, a shy Ginger Pojednic, ‘21, attended these events, hoping to blend in. 

Instead, confidence emerged as she connected with others and spoke upon similar experiences Pojednic realized she was not alone. Now a junior, she has a warmth to her presence welcoming others. 

The organization provided her a voice and an avenue for growth: in self-awareness, stress management and overall happiness. 

However, her pleasant smile turned into a stern frown as she began to discuss one main issue that troubles her going forward. 

“Lehigh needs to acknowledge the fact that the number of counselors and counseling services must increase to accommodate the new students for next school year,” Pojednic said. 

She emphasized the words ‘needs’ and ‘must’ by speaking with a loud, demanding tone. Her hands moved as she talked, and the white of her eyes became more apparent as her eyelids opened wider. 

Stanley, Corcione and Pojednic have discussed their concerns with Vice Provost for Student Affairs Ric Hall, but they have not seen any visible change on campus. “Mental illness should be looked at the same way we look at physical illness,” Stanley said. “Breaking an arm, compared to being depressed, should be viewed the same and should be funded the same way, too.” 

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