'If You're Reading This' shines light on mental health

Collaborative website seeks to foster tighter bond in U.Va. community


“If You’re Reading This” is a digital collection of letters pertaining to mental illnesses and stress written by and for University students.

Courtesy "If You're Reading This"

While almost 18 percent of adults in the United States grapple with some sort of mental illness, it remains a fairly taboo topic of conversation. In a school with over 15,000 undergraduates — many of whom were in the top of their class in high school — feeling overwhelmed or anxious can be easy and admitting imperfections can be difficult. Third-year College students Ryan Keen and Alexandra Pentel created the website “If You’re Reading This” in the hopes of changing that.

“If You’re Reading This” is a digital collection of letters pertaining to mental illnesses and stress written by and for University students. The letters may include struggles that the author faced, advice they have for those going through a rough time or simply words of affirmation and a promise of support.

“The original idea for the website came about around midterms of the fall semester, but I didn’t start doing the hard building of the site until around finals,” Pentel said. “Originally, I was thinking that I would just email my friends and some organizations ... but when I got to that point I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to need a bigger net to cast,’ which is when I brought in Ryan, who is now my partner in all this.”

Keen’s strategy for recruiting letters has provoked a much stronger response than Pentel’s original one.

“I thought it would be a better strategy to start small, so I started with the people I knew on Grounds who were in certain communities at the University … and I explained the message I wanted them to get across and we started posting those things,” Keen said.

By the time they’d begun reaching out to student leaders at the University, Keen and Pentel had already developed a preferred letter format. They asked the leaders to submit a letter beginning with the phrase “If you’re reading this,” and then delve into their message.

Now, the site currently boasts a handful of posts from students of all years and fields of study. Any student can submit letters through a link on the site and they can choose to submit anonymously if doing so makes them more comfortable, but even those who chose to submit publicly say that are happy to have done so.

“Every person I’ve talked to has said that writing was an overwhelmingly positive experience, and they have not at all regretted making their stories public in this way,” said Sarah Kenny, a third-year College student and Student Council President. Kenny authored a post for the site in March.

“I appreciated it that people I respect and work with in the community shared their stories because it really breaks down the image of untouchability,” Kenny said. “I felt a responsibility to help break down that narrative in the really powerful way that Ryan and Pentel had been doing through this work.”

While “If You’re Reading This” was started for and by University students, it is not yet a CIO.

As of right now, it is all paid for out of pocket by Pentel, with the help of one donation from the 21 Society. Although attaining CIO status is the next goal for “If You’re Reading This,” Pentel and Keen have big plans for its future.

“Part of our big picture idea is to get onto other campuses,” Pentel said. “I know that there are two other schools already interested in founding chapters, so that’s really exciting and that’ll go along with finding people to pass it down to.”

Pentel and Keen’s main hope with this project is not just to create a dialogue about mental health, but to create a more authentic and open University community.

“I think that by getting students — especially student leaders — to post on this site, not only do we address … these issues with depression and anxiety ... but we also keep the University from becoming fractured,” Keen said. “By merging the two worlds and humanizing these people by saying, ‘look, they’re students and they struggle with the same issues you do,’ we kind of bring the community closer together.”

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