By Jordan Stovka

Contrasting the cool rain that drizzled across campus Friday night, the Maryland Food Collective was filled with warmth, support and the spicy aroma of incense.

The Co-Op hosted a mental wellness-themed open mic, encouraging musicians and artists of all kinds to share stories, poetry, music and art in front of a group of supportive individuals, providing an outlet for mental health awareness.

The evening featured Lola, a golden retriever therapy dog owned by sophomore studio art major Camila Tapia-Guilliams, who helped organize the event as part of her Art Scholars Capstone project.

“I’m very passionate about the arts, about animals and about therapeutic resources, and I feel like the current system is really unequipped to deal with anyone with mental health problems,” Tapia-Guilliams said. “Animals are just so great. [Lola] has helped me so much personally, and I know she has helped plenty of other people.”

Lola brought smiles to plenty of faces those in attendance throughout the night, while performers shared their works behind the microphone.

One performer, Will Cook, 19 and a student at Montgomery College’s Takoma campus, played a song on guitar while also describing his personal battle with mental illness. Cook was diagnosed with clinical anxiety and depression two and a half years ago, and then was later diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Cook credits mental health as being a “very prevalent part” of his life.

From Cook’s experience, he believes there is a societal stigma that often discourages those struggling with mental illness to seek treatment. Cook explained that he initially rejected the idea of taking medication himself, believing that it would add an unnecessary seriousness to his condition.

“When I first was diagnosed, I didn’t want to go on medication because for me, that would make it serious, and I figured that if I downplayed it enough, it would have the same effects,” he said. “So yes, stigma is a huge part of it. I don’t bring it up to most of my good friends because they tend to look at me a different way.”

Cook took the microphone for a second time after his musical performance. He chose to emphasize the importance of supportive communities and described the positive influence that spaces like the Co-Op and The Void have made on him in his journey.

“They have a no tolerance policy for any sort of hate speech or negative behavior that is unjust. It’s a very safe place,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that are going through very similar things and using very similar coping methods, so it’s almost a great extended group therapy in a sense.”

Freshman letters and sciences major Jaclyn Troutner was initially interested in the open mic for the opportunity to share creatively in a welcoming space, but more so was passionate about its focus on mental health, a topic she said affects her everyday.

Troutner performed a poem and a song, feeling most inspired to offer support to others in the audience who could be going through similar trials. She also wanted to remind them that they are not alone in what they’re facing.

“When people have mental health problems, it can become very isolating, so even if no one in the room is going through exactly what you’re going through, you gain something from sharing,” she said. “You gain the validation, but also just knowing that you’re connecting with other humans.”

In fact, this instillment of community was the main goal Tapia-Guilliams had in mind for the event.

“I really hope it makes people feel less alone and more willing to talk to other people and express what they’re feeling, and not be scared to reach out in times of need,” she said.

The university Counseling Center is located in the Shoemaker building, and is open Monday through Thursday 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call (301) 314-7651 to schedule an appointment or inquire about services.

Featured Photo Credit: Lola the golden retriever provided therapy and smiles to attendees of the Maryland Food Collective’s mental health-themed open mic night held Friday, March 31, 2017 (Jordan Stovka/Bloc Reporter).

Jordan Stovka is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at jstovka@icloud.com.

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