Active Minds raises awareness about eating disorders


Photo: Evan Walsh

Emerson students practiced balancing on their left legs with their right legs bent back, knees facing down. They stretched their left arms towards the ceiling, inhaling, their right hand on their right foot. They bent their bodies forwards in dancer’s poses, then exhaled.

Josie Bray then instructed the students to hold their pose, and to “be kind and gentle to your bodies.”

Various events sponsored by Active Minds Emerson, a mental health advocacy group on campus, reinforced this positive mantra as part of Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Bray, a part time faculty member in the theatre department, agreed to lead a yoga session to inspire body positivity on Monday at Piano Row’s Cultural Center.

For Bray, yoga is about moment-to-moment physical awareness, as well as mental awareness. Noticing negative thoughts as they arise and learning not to judge them is a part of accepting yourself, she said.

At the end of the session, Bray gave one last instruction to the participating students.

“Bring your palms up to your heart and offer up a sense of thanks and gratitude to your body for the work it’s done today,” she said.

As a national organization, Active Minds recognizes Eating Disorder Awareness Week from Feb. 23 to March 1, but because of Emerson’s spring break schedule, Ashley Cunningham, president of the school’s chapter, decided to plan the week’s events from Feb. 20 to the 26 to ensure students could attend.

The activities included a photo shoot co-sponsored by Emerson Peace and Social Justice last Friday. During the shoot, participants were photographed with inspirational notes they wrote on a whiteboard to show solidarity with mental health awareness. The next day was self-injury awareness day, where members outside the dining hall handed out stickers, ribbons, and information about self-injury.

On Tuesday, Active Minds held a myth busters session with Ilana Licht, a clinical psychologist from the Cambridge Eating Disorder Clinic. The last event was a personal testimony from Karin Lewis, a former Emerson student who recovered from anorexia nervosa and is now a clinical director at Monte Nido Eating Disorder Treatment Center in California.

The concern of stigma is the number one reason why college students do not seek help for mental disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Members of Emerson’s chapter of Active Minds are aware of this, and have made it one of their goals to eradicate negative perceptions surrounding mental health on campus, said Cunningham, a sophomore marketing communication major.

In terms of eating disorders, she said the group’s goal for the week was to educate Emerson students to not look at the issue so simplistically.

“For that person, the problem is not the food, the problem is what is causing them to act that way in the first place,” said Cunningham. “You have to get down to what is causing this pressure, this anxiety. In a lot of cases, people tend to focus on what the person is doing that is negative, when in actuality they need to look at what’s behind what they’re doing.”

According to Cunningham, the reason some young adults resort to eating disorders is society’s unrealistic standards.

“It’s a Catch-22, because you’re not allowed to be too big and you’re not allowed to be too thin, and so you have to constantly try to get this perfect in-between,” she said.

Caitlin Bailey, secretary of Active Minds, and a sophomore performing arts major, said she believes that although body image is an issue for men, it is particularly difficult for women.

“There are a lot more implications about women’s bodies than men’s bodies, because women are [historically] valued primarily for their role as sex objects,” she said.

Bailey said Active Minds was started last fall, and since then, the group has gained support from students.

“I really like [Active Minds] as a whole because mental health is something that is close to my family and I think that it shouldn’t have this stigma around it that ‘you’re crazy’ or whatever,” said Molly LeGrow, a freshman undeclared major who attended last Friday’s photo shoot. “You should be able to talk about it.”

Peter Cannon, a junior visual and media arts major who has recently become involved with Active Minds, said he uses the group as a resource to provide perspective for his current BFA project, a video campaign on teen suicide.

“I’ve learned that [mental health] has a bigger sense of community than I thought,” he said. “Something I look forward to be being a part of.”