RU OKAY photovoice project brings students together for mental health awareness

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The Rowan Wellness Center is a vital resource for all students on campus by either helping hundreds of students feel their best for their next big exam, or by providing seasonal flu shots.

However, after the tragic death of students Ryan Onderdonk and Ryan Archer last year, some students are starting to address the lack of mental health resources the center has to offer.

Junior physics student Austin O’Neill, 20, in response to these concerns, has decided to make a photovoice project about the lack of mental health resources across universities nationwide.

Soon after getting the inspiration for the idea, O’Neill reached out to Jeraca Marsh from the ‘To Write Love on Their Arms’ organization at Rowan, a group that’s a part of the nationwide non-profit movement to help those who struggle with all forms of mental health. Here at Rowan, the organization is most known for starting the ‘RUOkay’ hashtag that spread like wildfire across campus. Marsh liked O’Neill’s idea, and soon the project started to take form.

“I want to show the university that this is an important issue,” O’Neill said. “I enjoy photography, and I feel this project would be a good way to try to personify people, and keep the conversation going.”

Senior early childhood education and literary studies major Ruadhán Lee stands in front of the Wellness Center for the RU OKAY Project. -Photo courtesy of Austin O’Neill

“My main goal of this photovoice project is to destigmatize mental illness,” O’Neill said. “I want the students to know, that I too am a student just like them. Together, we can improve mental health resources across all universities. One student’s life at a time.”

O’Neill created a survey on Facebook groups for people to be able to tell their mental health stories. From there, he gave participants a white board to write a message about their struggles as O’Neill snapped their picture. He then gathered some personal information from the students, and published them on his personal website.

The messages people decided to write for the project ranged from personal experiences, to more general messages of strength and encouragement.

“RUokay is not the solution; rather as a way to keep the conversation going. As someone who personally deals with depression among other things, I see the power in showing one’s perspective,” O’Neill wrote in a post on Facebook.

One picture O’Neill showed to give an idea of his vision, featured a young man with the message “I will persist” written on the white board he’s holding up, waist high.

Using black and white film, O’Neill captured the students who were involved.

“I decided to use black and white film to keep uniformity in the pictures, but to also address the fact that mental health is not black or white, but can vary on a spectrum.” O’Neill said.

Mental health is hidden within every person and in order to support everyone’s needs it has to be flexible.

“I want to be able to progress with this photovoice project so that there continues to be a dialogue,” O’Neill continued. “So many actions start strong, but then start to lose traction over time. I don’t want this to happen, because the discussion needs to continue. I want students to know that they are not alone in their struggles. I really want this to leave an impact on the college community here at Rowan.”

Junior history and international studies major Rayner Abreu participated in O’Neill’s project and believes that O’Neill’s project is a great way for students to voice their thoughts about how the wellness deals with mental health.

“With the new changes coming to the wellness center it is important for all of us at Rowan to voice our concerns and opinions,” Abreu said. “The school has the resources to expand the Wellness Center, they just refuse to allocate them effectively, which I feel is a huge disservice to the students. Austin’s project means a lot to me, and if we can spread more awareness about these things, we can get the university to make the changes we really need.”

“This dialogue is needed so that students know the resources that are available to them, and more can be provided,” O’ Neill explained. “My main goal of this photovoice project is to destigmatize mental illness”

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