WHAT IT MEANT TO WORK WITH NAMI AS A COLLEGE STUDENT DEALING WITH DEPRESSION
By Neha Sharma, Early Careers Intern, Publicis Health
My name is Neha Sharma. I’m a Publicis Health intern, and I struggle with depression.
Perhaps I’m taking a significant risk by putting this out in the virtual world. Maybe I don’t fully comprehend the consequences this may reap — the labeling and judgment that come with opening the door to this conversation.
Perhaps opening the door this conversation is the best thing I can do.
I’m not writing this for recognition. I’m not writing this for pity. Yes, I struggle with a mental illness. Yes, I will still be okay in the workforce.
The night before the first day of my internship, I could barely sleep. I kept tossing and turning in my bed and letting self-doubt and insecurities flood my brain. My mind was racing with negativity as I drifted in and out of sleep.
When morning came, I fueled up with a bowl of oatmeal, vacuumed the flooding of negativity in my mind, and replaced it with my personal mantra of “you got this,” and set out to take on The Big Apple. After walking five blocks in the wrong direction, I did precisely that. This was going to be a good summer.
My sixth day of work was June 5, 2018. Having just finished my lunch, I heard the news about Kate Spade’s suicide. My stomach flipped as murmurs spread through the maze of cubicles around me. Kate Spade was the cookie-cutter success story: a small-town girl who made it big because of her unwavering drive and dedication to her work, supported by her loving family. She seemingly had everything to live for, yet the hardships of life made her falter. And if she couldn’t make it, then how could we — the 18.5% of the US population suffering from mental illness — make it?
Two days later, we were given our client at kick-off, NAMI: the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I couldn’t help but feel like this was fate; somehow all the stars aligned and I was right where I was supposed to be. I listened to professionals divulge facts regarding mental health and how it permeates society. They aptly put into words the feelings I struggled for so long to explain to others. Most of all, they asked us, the generation who can shape the future, to join hands and make a divisive world more compassionate.
Our CEO, Alexandra von Plato, followed the brief by asking everyone who had been affected by mental illness in some way to raise their hands: almost everyone in the room did. I was stunned at how many hands went up and how comfortable my peers were in raising them. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting amongst all these people, in a professional setting, being encouraged to talk about mental health. I never thought that was possible.
I heard about Anthony Bourdain’s passing on the radio on my way to the bus stop in the morning the following day. My heart hurt.
The next two weeks kept me occupied as I worked towards finding my footing here. I dove headfirst into my internship, learning and meeting new people while furiously scribbling messy notes into my journal. In some ways, it was good to be busy because I had no time to think about the darkness that enveloped our world, though I did feel a palpable sorrow in the skies of New York every day.
We received our project brief shortly after that. The project deliverable was to design a campaign emphasizing the fact that we’re better together. We were tasked with creating a strategy to encourage college-aged students — my peers — to reach out to one another and launch a dialogue surrounding mental illness so no one would suffer in silence and feel alone.
I sat in meeting after meeting with my team as everyone diligently began to research, brainstorm and ideate a concept. We looked at several jarring statistics: the number of people who feel their friends and family does not understand mental illnesses, the number of suicide attempts made every year on college campuses, the number of those that are successful. It was all very disheartening. It was all very real.
At one meeting, someone revealed a particularly rattling piece of data: “On average, 500,000 people Google ‘Am I depressed?’ each year.” There was a pause of silence as people absorbed the reality. My mouth went dry, and my pulse quickened. I felt exposed like I had been found out. There was a time when I had been on the opposite side of that computer screen; I had been the one with all those fears plaguing my mind, and I didn’t think I could turn to a person to explain these insecurities, so I switched to an online algorithm instead.
I sat in my chair, fidgeting with my fingers and chewing my lip. For some reason, I was nervous to hear everyone’s responses. But then people spoke up with words of understanding and support, offering their own ideas of how we solve this problem, together. My pulse quickened again but this time for a different reason altogether. I was genuinely floored at how empathetic my teammates were to such a sensitive topic. I smiled and jumped into the conversation with a sigh of relief.
I am nearing the end of the Internship Program, and my team will be presenting to NAMI in five days. I feel a genuine change in myself. I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge during this program. I’ve mastered the art of weaving through city crowds. I’ve successfully taken the subway twice. But aside from making it in New York City, I also feel lighter. Being able to talk about mental illness so openly while actively making this world a happier place has been a very freeing and gratifying experience.
I look at the future with exceptional hesitation; I always have. The fear of the unknown is something I know all too well, and the thought of change always makes me a little skittish. I don’t know where I will end up after I graduate college. I don’t know how kind the world will be to people like me. I have no idea of the many hurdles I will inevitably face, both personally and professionally. But I leave this summer with hope for the future because these past eight weeks have shown me an entire community of both my peers and my allies who are rooting for me — rooting for one of the millions of people each year struggling with mental illness.
So, I leave this summer with the knowledge that I will be okay. And, if we all come together to be a part of “curing the stigma” around mental health perhaps many more discover they will be okay too.