Student Stories

Art-iculating Stigma

Historically, the coffeehouse has provided a social space for people from all walks of life to come together and engage in conversation over coffee and food. It was often a place to tell stories, a place where patrons felt safe to recount their experiences through art, without fear of judgment. That tradition continued at the first-annual Arts Coffeehouse on January 13, where dis/ability awareness groups Active Minds and Axis UChicago provided students with a space to tell their stories, through poetry, art, and song.

“Arts Coffeehouse provides an intimate night of art, performance, and music dedicated to dis/ability and mental health,” said Axis founder and fourth-year Alita Carbone.

“Dis/ability” isn’t a typo. The slash is a recognition that the term can be used in a variety of different ways, depending on the person. Part of Axis’s mission is to spread awareness that dis/ability should never be an umbrella term to catch and distill a spectrum of experiences into one word. Each individual has a special and unique relationship to the term and will use it as they feel fit.

Carbone and other members of Axis decided to team up with Active Minds UChicago, a Registered Student Organization dedicated to advocating for a more open discussion about mental health.

“While Axis UChicago and Active Minds work in different spheres, we found that two common themes link both mental health and dis/ability: stigma and the need for self-identification,” said Carbone.

The event was part of a larger week of programming, all meant to bring awareness to societal stigmas surrounding mental health and physical dis/ability. Known as “See Through Stigma Awareness Week,” these events work to bring academic scholars, activists, and students together to discuss the realities of stigma. From lecture talks to movie screenings to a health and wellness fair, the week was an educational opportunity and introduced students to the professionals working in dis/ability and mental health.

Arts Coffeehouse was the culmination of the week’s programming and put students at the forefront, allowing them to share their own experiences with stigma and dis/ability. While some students read poems or played music, others decided to share their art off the stage and hung paintings, drawings, and even zines. Two documentaries, one of which was made by students, repeatedly screened (on mute with subtitles) throughout the entire event and covered difficult topics like physical dis/ability as well as mental health at the University of Chicago.

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Students ate pancakes and drank coffee while attentively listening to and watching their fellow peers’ stories. Topics discussed included being a good friend to somebody with bipolar disorder, society’s perception of PTSD, and the realities of depression.

“It was so refreshing to hear these type of stories,” said second-year Charlotte Steele. “I have a lot of friends and family that suffer from mental illness and I see how stigma affects them. It’s great that people are talking about this [and] the stories shared were really beautiful.”

Some performances didn’t have a direct story to tell, instead using their art to describe general feelings and moods related to dis/ability. First-year Eli Winter played uninterrupted acoustic guitar, with no explanation as to what his music was about.

During an interview, he said that he intentionally wanted his performance to be unclear, so the audience could ascribe their own meaning to it. Art is an interplay between the performer and the listener, and the meaning stems from that interaction. “The nature of this sort of music lends a certain openness to interpretation in terms of what it means. I'd feel uncomfortable assigning my performance a definitive meaning, so it can mean whatever you want it to mean.”

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His answer perfectly sums up the night’s theme. Dis/ability can take a number of different forms and affect others differently.

“Stigma really isn’t an issue I’ve been aware of, except on a personal level,” said second-year attendee Olivia Gallo. “I’m not very vocal, but that’s something I’d like to change. Tonight offered a supportive environment allowing students to share [and] I think that’s necessary.”

While Seeing Through Stigma Week may be over, Axis UChicago and Active Minds will still be hard at work to fight stigma and to advocate for increased dis/ability awareness.

“I hope that this is one of the many events working toward a stigma-free environment,” said Carbone.