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JED Student Ambassador and Cornell University Student Katie Gorton Takes Action to Improve Mental Health on Campus

As college students head back to school each year, they are often required to navigate new social situations, living environments, and educational settingsall at the same time. During this transitional period, it is useful to have access to mental health resources and support. 

That’s why Katherine (“Katie”) Gorton, a JED Student Ambassador and rising junior at Cornell University, decided last summer to begin developing a Student Mental Health Resources Guide. Gorton, who is also a co-president of Body Positive Cornell, partnered with 800 organizations, professors, and departments to distribute this new mental health resource to students on campus, including first-year students, student-athletes, and students returning from mental health leaves of absence.

JED asked Gorton to share some advice on going back to school, her own mental health journey, and how she wound up coordinating efforts with Selena Gomez.

  1. Why are you passionate about mental health?

I’m originally from Los Altos, California, and my mental health journey has had its share of ups and downs, including anxiety, depression, bullying, and poor body image at middle school and high school. I yearned for community support and a place where I could be myself and be loved. I transferred between four high schools, hoping to find a fit, while my mental health remained unaddressed for years until ultimately I ended up in the hospital.

Looking back, I now realize the happiness and support I sought from others needed to be found within myself and that my most challenging experiences were also my most rewarding.There is great power in letting go of past trauma because it will help you reflect on your present and your purpose. By tapping into mental health resources, you can not only empower yourself, but also help your peers to feel connected and less alone. Help is out there.

2. How do you take care of your mental health? 

One of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve learned is that “you need to feel to heal.” On my worst days, when I have overwhelming thoughts or feel low, I focus on controlling what I can in the present moment. I meditate, exercise (even when I don’t want to), eat regularly, and have an awareness of my negative thoughts or anxiety. I let myself feel everything, try not to be overwhelmed, and understand these emotions will pass. But, this is not the same for everyone. When I’m feeling anxious or depressed, I try to see my friends and get out of my environment because I tend to self-isolate. It’s all about taking one day at a time.

3. Transitioning from high school to college is a significant milestone. How was that experience for you?

My transition from high school to college was challenging. I experienced imposter syndrome and overwhelming feelings of depression and anxiety. I questioned whether I belonged at an Ivy League school and had doubts about whether or not I could be successful on my own. I began having a negative view of myself and my capabilities, started self-isolating, and experienced perfectionism. Mental health was never seriously discussed while on campus, but I knew I wasn’t doing very well. So, I decided to take a mental health leave of absence from Cornell. 

I spent that time working on myself, my depression, and my anxiety with the help of a therapist. Everything that has happened to me only served to motivate me to become more involved in activism, work to develop a mental health community at Cornell, and talk honestly about my experiences.

4. How has your mental health advocacy has impacted your campus community?

I serve as the co-president of Body Positive Cornell, a peer-led Cornell Health program and club that’s dedicated to creating change on campus surrounding mental health, body image, and eating disorders. Last summer, I took action to improve mental health on my campus by creating a Student Mental Health Resources Guide. I’m in continued discussion with university professors to include my Cornell Mental Health Guide in their syllabi as a way to expand conversations about normalizing mental health on campus. 

I am also co-founder of the Student Mental Health Collective, a coalition made up of the student mental health organizations on campus. Through this umbrella organization, we serve as a resource to allow wellness and identity groups to collaborate, update each other on their work and events at Cornell, and have a stronger impact on the community. 

Lastly, I’m working with administrators in Student and Campus Life and Cornell Health to create a year-long mental health social media campaign that would be promoted on the college’s Instagram page. JED resources are being leveraged for this strategy, which includes promoting personal narratives.

5. How did you become a JED Student Ambassador?

Last September, I contacted a Cornell professor who is also a JED consultant because I wanted to become engaged in their work and collaborate on campus during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. After sharing my stories and experiences, I was accepted as a JED Student Ambassador at Cornell University. This role allows me to spread awareness about JED’s mission of protecting emotional health and preventing suicide for teens and young adults. 

It is shocking that suicide is the second-leading cause of death [for young people worldwide]. There needs to be more conversations on the importance of resilience and social connectedness for incoming students. I want to encourage students to speak openly about their mental health, but I can’t do this alone. Every school should be a JED Campus, because it allows students to feel recognized in their hardships through support and applicable changes.

6. Can you talk about your work as a Rare Impact Ambassador for Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty cosmetics brand? 

I was nominated by JED to apply for the Rare Impact Ambassador program because of my success as JED Student Ambassador at Cornell University. It’s been a dream to be part of the Rare Impact Ambassador program, and I’m so grateful! At times, mental health activism can seem lonely, and it’s great to [join] 28 other college and graduate students who have the same drive and mission to create positive change. We amplify Rare Impact’s mission and support mental health advocacy among each other, our peers, and our communities.

7. “You Are Here” is JED’s back-to-school theme for 2022. This message focuses on helping students center themselves, identify their intentions, and map out a mental health plan that feels good to them. How do you think this campaign can help students?

As someone who struggles with anxiety, I frequently work on grounding myself and being present in the moment. This campaign is so important and has such an amazing message. [It can] help students think about their intentions for their time in school and focus on their values and what they want to get out of their experience. I see this campaign as also encouraging students to reflect on their needs and effective coping skills. Making a mental health checklist or personal plan will help students feel more in control and prepared when obstacles may arise. Having these strategies will help students feel more empowered and understand they are not [defined by] their struggles. It sends the message that as high school and college students, we’re not alone.

Ready to plan for a school year that feels good to you? Find easy-to-use expert advice, resources, and tips for taking care of yourself as you head back to school. 

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.

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