Sayeh Akhavan

I was 14 years old when my sister had her first breakdown. As a young high schooler, I knew nothing about bi-polar disorder. My sister and I are only one year apart, and she is the greatest person and friend I have ever known.

Throughout high school, her struggle with mental illness persisted. I watched as her peers shunned her and formed the idea of who she was by their stigmatized view of her illness. And I grew disappointed by the lack of mental health education in our schools.

During her junior year, my sister’s condition worsened. Those were the most difficult days for my whole family. I watched as the debilitating effects of mental illness impacted all of us, and I took note of how mental illness is truly a community issue that affects us all.

One in five teens face some kind of mental health challenge at any given time.

I came to UCSB with an interest in medicine, but the pursuit to find a subject I loved (and my growing interest in mental health education) led me to take my first psychology course: psychopathology. This class flipped a switch in me that was just waiting to be activated all these years. My experience with my sister’s mental illness sparked a hunger to learn more about this field that is so rarely talked about in our society. I also wanted to promote understanding to help ease the fear and judgment that I watched my sister experience.

On my new path, I was delighted to find the Mental Wellness Center in Santa Barbara and Active Minds at UCSB.

In the whirlwind of pressure to succeed, homework to finish, and friendships to forge, it is easy to lose your grasp on wellness. Active Minds is a nationwide nonprofit with chapters on college and high school campuses and a goal to spread mental health awareness through peer relationships and advocacy. Active Minds grounds students; it empowers them to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking. Meeting with other college students who understood my story allowed me to fully succeed and find my place away from home at UCSB.

I was eager to get more involved in mental health education in the community. My dream to reach high school students led me to the Mental Wellness Center and its education programs and incredible client and family services. I was in search of volunteer opportunities, but they hired me instead! Their dedication to educating youth and eliminating stigma before it digs its roots in too deep really resonated with me. In my time on their team, I co-led a Managing Anxiety support group on a local high school campus and assisted with other programs offered to the community. I grew determined to continue this work and pursue a career helping others in this field.

Now, my sister is a successful college student pursuing her engineering degree. She was able to find her footing, and I’m proud to say she is thriving.

My sister’s story has inspired my story. Her strength has shown me how important it is that we don’t misjudge mental illness and those affected by it. It has sparked my passion for mental wellness and my plans to pursue a master’s in psychiatric rehabilitation after I graduate in June with degrees in pharmacology and biopsychology.

If we want to succeed at helping those who live with mental illness, we must create a social culture where acceptance and support beat out fear and judgment. We have to step forward for mental health.

Sayeh Akhavan is a senior at UCSB.

4-1-1: The Mental Wellness Center and UCSB Active Minds will host the 5K Walk for Mental Wellness on Friday, May 6 at 5 p.m. at East Beach Bathhouse. See for details.


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