BEMIDJI -- In an attempt to stifle the stigma surrounding seeking mental health resources, a group of three panelists shared vulnerable stories of struggles with mental health, coping strategies and the reasons they ultimately sought professional help.

Bemidji State University held its seventh annual Mental Health Awareness panel, virtually, on Thursday. The event was hosted by student organizations Active Minds and Lifestyle Educators as well as the Student Center for Health and Counseling.

The annual panel aimed to educate students and members of the Bemidji community about mental health issues in efforts to reduce the social stigma around seeking professional help.

The discussion was facilitated by BSU counselors Amanda Gartner and Hannah Wilson.

“We will start the conversation,” Gartner said, “but it’s up to you to continue the conversation by speaking up.”

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Panelists Sarah Williamson, Shawn Campbell and Tyler Fentem shared their experiences and how they found success in seeking treatment.

Williamson spoke about her journey with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and how she overcame an emotionally abusive relationship. She spoke about forgiving herself and realizing, “it’s okay to not be okay.”

“It took me a couple of months to realize I needed more help than I was allowing myself,” she said. “By the time I sought individual therapy from a counselor, I had hit rock bottom.”

Fentem spoke about his struggles with suicidal ideations and chemical dependency.

“It took months for me to go and seek my own services and that’s really when I knew that I had some serious issues with mental illness,” he said. “As of 2015 when I really started to take care of things, it got a lot better, but I don’t want to say it’s been perfect.”

Campbell spoke about how he hopes to reduce the stigma for men against seeking mental health resources.

“We’re told that men can’t cry and that we’ve got to be tough,” he said. “That is something that I don’t agree with and I want to change the stigma.”

The three also touched on how the pandemic has specifically hindered their mental health journeys -- making it more difficult to see support persons or participate in regular coping strategies, like going to the gym.

“Things will get better, even in the time of this pandemic, I know things can be difficult, but if we can find the resources and the people, our lives can be very good even with a mental illness,” Fentem said.

Attendees were able to anonymously send in questions for the panelists -- all either Bemidji State University students or alumni -- to answer. Many questions surrounded the best ways to help a friend who might be struggling.

BSU students still have access to free mental health resources, whether or not they are on campus, through the Student Center for Health and Counseling. The center is a comprehensive and integrated health care facility that includes both health and counseling services, and it provides students with access to primary health care, telehealth, individualized personal counseling, group therapy and outreach services.

Currently, all counseling sessions are being held virtually via a telehealth platform.