And So I Kept Living

By Anna Daccache

I had always been hesitant to run for the Executive Committee. I enjoyed being involved on the outskirts: the Constitutional Review, the Hearing Advisor Program. I never felt compelled to run because I didn’t think I had much to offer. It took me three years to come to the realization that I didn’t have to bring something to the table but instead, I could use the platform of the EC to do good for the Washington and Lee Community. So, I decided to run for class representative and I was fortunate enough to be elected. That’s when I knew what I had to do.

Mental health advocacy and the subject of mental illness has been extremely important to me since I was in grade school. Family members of mine suffer from depression and anxiety. I watched as friends of mine in high school spiraled out of control and self-medicated as a way to cope with what troubled them. And deep down, I found myself feeling aimless, hopeless, anxious, purposeless. Something very few people in my life know, not even my family, is that in middle school I tried to kill myself. If two friends of mine at the time hadn’t realized what was happening and hadn’t stopped me, I’m not sure where I would be today, if I would be here today. But I got a second chance.

I love Washington and Lee. The people, the mountains, the opportunities I’m afforded, it is all so special. But it breaks my heart to know that so many people allow themselves to be perceived as someone they’re not. I am guilty of this. W&L is a place of unbelievably high achieving students, in all aspects of life. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the damage that can be done when no one is willing to seek help or admit they’re struggling. Substance abuse and mental illness are so prevalent on this campus. These struggles aren’t things we should hide or be ashamed of, they’re hardships we should face together. Yet so often, we don’t.

In fully realizing the opportunities serving on the Executive Committee afforded me, I knew I wanted to do something that would leave a profound impact on this campus. W&L needs a culture shift in how we discuss and address mental illness and substance abuse. That’s why I decided to start the EC Standing Committee on Addiction and Mental Health.

To give some context, I have spent almost ten years struggling with anxiety and depression but did not go and speak to anyone until right before my junior year at W&L when I was formally diagnosed. One year later, I finally told my mom what my therapist said. I know I am not alone in this. The more people I speak to the more stories that are shared with me, either personal or about friends. Here at W&L we’ve created a culture of silence surrounding mental illness and addiction. That’s why I reached out to individuals involved in the Washingtonian Society to help me with this mission of changing the culture of our school. Groups like the Washingtonian Society have really stepped up in recent years in creating an open dialogue surrounding the issues that students on this campus, our friends and classmates, roommates and teammates, face every day.

The goal of this standing committee isn’t just to put on events and bring speakers, it is about fundamentally changing how every student, faculty member, and administrator on this campus approaches and discusses things like mental health and substance abuse. Our biggest problem right now is that no one even talks about it. Since this committee was formed, dozens of students have expressed interest about getting involved, and many already have. We have met with faculty and administrators who fully support our initiatives and said they would help us in any way possible. And this is only just the beginning.

Changing the culture will take time. I’m not going to be at W&L for much longer and the changes I hope to see made will most likely not come around until years after I am gone. But this issue is so much bigger than me and everyone else involved. We all recognize we most likely will not be around to benefit from this culture shift. That shouldn’t matter. Washington and Lee’s motto is “Not unmindful of the future.” We should all strive to make W&L better than what it was when we began our college careers. So, talk about it. Ask how someone is and really mean it. Truthfully answer someone when they ask you how you are doing. It starts with the little things. And if one by one we can help one person, change one mind, then together we can make waves.

That’s what I want out of this committee. We shouldn’t have to hide going to the counseling center. We shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to be vulnerable in the place we call home for four years. It’s no home if you cannot be yourself. This campus is full of intelligent, thoughtful, kind individuals. Let’s put that to good use and push the culture forward. Let’s talk about it. I know I will.

Didi Pace