In honor of Mental Health Week, Michelle Williams delivered a keynote speech emphasizing the issue of mental illness and the importance of addressing mental health to the audience gathered in Wait Chapel on Thursday, March 21, at 6 p.m.
Student Government President Danny Reeves introduced Williams’ keynote speech as a vital step toward breaking down the barriers that often silence and suppress mental illness.
He commented on the value that this keynote speech contributed to the overarching goal of Mental Health Week “to deconstruct the stigma around mental health.”
Williams was able to impart wisdom to the audience from her experience not only in the music industry as a former singer in Destiny’s Child, Broadway actress, entrepreneur, designer and television host, but also as an ambassador for the Office on Women’s Health, where she works to promote mental health awareness.
Her speech included a transparent discussion of her personal experience dealing with depression and taking time off from her career in order to recover and strengthen her mental health.
“Beauty is when you are vulnerable and your defenses are down,” Williams said.
She began by reflecting on her childhood, as she was raised in Rockford, Ill.and influenced by her father’s role as a pastor. Here, she learned church hymnals like “Walk with Me Lord,” which she would later perform for her audition to sing with the music group, Destiny’s Child.
During this time of her life, she said that both her religious background and family culture led her to believe that mental health issues do not need to be addressed. Rather, she said she was told that her struggles would magically vanish if she prayed and “rolled around on the altar.”
Despite leaving her hometown and proceeding to sign record deals and excel in the music industry, Williams experienced symptoms of depression. She explained that she initially dispelled these as “growing pains,” especially due to the cultural stigmatization of mental illness, as well as the lack of support and conversations surrounding mental health.
She commented on her experience of challenging the societal pressures to hide her struggles behind a façade of professional success, as well as her journey of confronting the reality of her mental illness and working toward recovery.
Williams also noted that the stigma that “only people down in the dumps” suffer from mental illness is inaccurate because she and other highly functioning stars could still be silently suffering from mental illness behind misleading appearances of happiness, wealth or success.
She eventually began to recognize the underlying problem of depression and the importance of recovering from mental illnesses. With that realization, she decided to resign from her role on “Once on This Island” in November due to an emotional breakdown.
“Plans can always be cancelled when it comes to your mental health and your peace,” Williams said. “Don’t wait to get to a place where you’re forced to sit out.”
Williams encouraged the individuals in the audience to prioritize their mental health above other obligations and to seek out professional help upon experiencing symptoms of mental illness. Also, she applauded the mental health professionals in the audience and commended the work that mental health professionals perform.
Although the societal stigma surrounding mental health sometimes hinders one from seeking help, Williams talked about how her transition from rejecting the problem to acknowledging it made a positive impact in the ability to seek treatment and improve her wellbeing.
“Healing must take place in the heart first before you do anything,” Williams said.
During a subsequent Q&A session, she welcomed individuals in the audience to share their personal stories and ask her for any advice on mental health issues.
Dana Hindi, a freshman who attended the event, spoke on the value of Williams’ contribution to this conversation about mental health.
“Hearing Michelle Williams speak was beautiful,” Hindi said. “Not only was it a mental health conversation but it was also an entertaining experience…When she opened up her talk for questions, I was not disappointed. She was very genuine and down-to-earth…it was very memorable.”
Williams finished her appearance with one final statement on how each human individual also has the capacity for resilience and the power to combat mental illness.
“For any of you [who is] dealing with a mental health issue and the severity of it, I refuse to believe that you are supposed to live that way forever,” Williams said. “Everybody has the power to say it stops here. Go and get free.”