Posted on: December 10, 2021 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

By Deana Elhit, Editor-in-Chief

After performing a theatrical true story about mental illness, literature and communications professor Shelita Shaw saw a need to create a curriculum focused on bettering mental health.

Her goal was to create a safe and open space dedicated to destigmatizing mental illness for students and normalizing the conversation about getting help.

“Wherever the mind goes, the body follows.” Shaw repeats this almost as a mantra. “If you’re not in a good mental space, anything I require of you [as a student] will suffer.”

Shaw was inspired by Erasing the Distance, a non-profit organization based in Chicago that works to educate and disarm stigmas of mental illness through theatre performances based on true stories. Ninety-minute interviews are conducted with sufferers of mental illness, and these interviews then get transcribed into 10-minute monologues.

Shaw first went to Erasing the Distance in 2018 after seeing a segment about it on ABC News. What struck her most were the trigger warnings given before the event began. Audience members were asked to be sensitive. If anyone needed to leave the performance, audience members were asked to be willing participants in helping the person with what they needed.

“I never heard that before,” Shaw said. “I thought to myself, these people are really in tune with how mental health can get not just triggered, but can get emotional. And it’s not contagion where you are, so that caught my attention.”

Wherever the mind goes, the body follows.”

Shelita Shaw

After multiple visits to the theatre, Shaw was tapped on the shoulder by one the staff members, who asked if she was interested in becoming a storyteller. In early 2020, before the pandemic hit, Shaw was able to tell the story of a young woman, Erica. 

As the first lady at a church, Erica struggles to admit her mental illness to her husband because of the stigmas that surround religion versus mental illness. 

It’s a common story that affects many. Often, when someone comes forward with a mental illness in a religious community, they are told to “pray it off” or become closer with God. Shaw admitted to knowing how true Erica’s story was.  

Shaw connected with Erica, since Shaw had spent her whole life in church. She calls herself a “church baby” as her parents met there.

Erica’s story opened Shaw to how religion and mental illness could also be affecting her students. She wanted to understand the best way to help incorporate a focus on mental awareness in her curriculum. To do that, she needed to step away and talk to college students.

It was Erica’s story that freed me, liberated me to embrace my thinking that it can be faith and help. The two can work together, not apart.”

Shelita Shaw

“It was Erica’s story that freed me, liberated me to embrace my thinking that it can be faith AND help,” Shaw said. “The two can work together, not apart.

“When it comes to your mental health, prayer is not a solo act. It has background singers if you need medication, therapy, or a group. It does come in a band.”

Shaw’s performance was the first time she professionally took on acting, and the show was a success. She later was asked to perform Erica’s story a second time in Oct. 2021.

“I’m painfully aware that this is somebody’s real life and so my goal is to tell in a way that it impacts somebody, because it’s a real life,” Shaw said. “I always think about if this person was in the audience, would they feel I did a good job for them. Fortunately, that has been true.”

Shaw related not only to Erica but to her students as well.

Shelita Shaw creates an open space to destigmatize mental illness and normalize the conversation.

She had first started experiencing mental illness after becoming too overwhelmed in her junior year at college, while being hours away from home. “Once you or a loved one have experienced [mental illness], then it takes on a different meaning for you,” she said. 

To focus on mental health awareness, she assigns her students a day outside the house for 24 hours, called “fresh air day.” One student thanked Shaw for getting the chance to have lunch with their mother, and other students reconnected with themselves after being overwhelmed by school.

Shaw also assigns a trip to downtown Chicago for students to discover specific places as she realized some students have never visited downtown.

“Sometimes we get caught up in assignments and due dates, and I think we miss the point of what COVID was supposed to show us,“ she said, pointing to the need to slow down.

Shaw explains students do not have mental breaks in college unless teachers include it in the curriculum.

“I think if we can pay attention to the mental health aspect, we’ll create better students. You are creating better citizens in the community because you’re happier,” she says.

“I’m very empathetic to the journey and specifically of higher education students because that’s when it started for me,” she says. “I had my first breakdown, which I now consider my breakthrough, in my college years.”

Shaw’s parents would often say, “this is not for you.” Shaw explains you’re not here for yourself,  but for others.The pain you go through will open up and help others to heal, and connect with those struggling. Your struggle brings empathy into understanding others.

“The maturation process allows you to embrace all of your story and remove any stigma from it,” she says. “I tell my story anytime I get the chance, I’m certainly not ashamed of it.” 

Shaw recalls when she visited the doctor’s office during her college years, 30 years ago. The doctor had claimed many freshmen students were breaking down and going home, calling it “trendy.”

I think if we can pay attention to the mental health aspect, we’ll create better students. You are creating better citizens in the community because you’re happier.”

Shelita Shaw

Today, research shows almost half of college students have a psychiatric disorder, and 73 percent of students experience some sort of mental health crisis during college. But only 25 percent of students with a mental health problem seek help.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death of colllege students in the U.S., and approximately 1,100 college students die by suicide each year.

Shaw encourages students to seek medical help for mental illnesses they may be struggling with. “You’ll be surprised what a little conversation for an hour can accomplish,” she says.

Shaw says the greatest gift she has received is allowing somebody a safe place to tell their story and see the impact they have on the listener by staying present in that moment.

“I never thought in a million years that I would get a chance to talk about what were the hardest times of my life and how it became the very thing that broke my spirit open,” Shaw said. “It wasn’t a breakdown, it was a break open, and it started me on the journey of empathy.”