Interview with Salam El Banna, Fall 2021

Salam El Banna
Salam El Banna, image by Marisa Luccese

Eddy Interview by Marisa Lucchese, Photography BFA
with Salam El Banna, International Relations with a Minor
in Communications
, Event Coordinator for Active Minds   

What is your name and pronouns? 

My name is Salam El Banna, and my pronouns are they/he. 

What is your age and major? 

I am 20, and I’m majoring in International Relations with a minor in Communications. 

Where are you from? 

I’m originally from Lebanon, I lived there for 15 years. I immigrated to New York City (Queens). 

What types of hobbies or activities are you interested in? 

I am interested in sketching, I really like art. That’s one of my main hobbies. 

Has campus made you feel welcome? 

Yeah, I’ve been on campus for three years now, it’s my junior year. It’s a nice community. 

How does the community here at New Paltz differ from your home?
It differs a lot. I come from a conservative household, and here it’s obviously a bit different. It’s more individualistic and freeing than back home. 

What personal journey brought you to your current role? 

I am currently the event coordinator for Active Minds, which is a mental health advocacy group. We work with OASIS/HAVEN (student-staffed, crisis intervention center and telephone hot-lines). I would say what brought me to my role is my personal experience with mental health. I’ve gone through a lot growing up when it comes to mental health, and last semester, I got diagnosed with a few disorders. I started exploring and learning more about the mental health process. One of the big reasons why I got into it is because of the support I got from my friends which encouraged me to, when the opportunity came up, create a chapter of Active Minds. I had been interested in it for a while, but the push to focus on mental health as a campus came as a response to COVID-19. We definitely got more funding and willingness to do something. 

What issues or challenges are you confronted with? 

For Active Minds right now, we are struggling with being a new club on campus. We just recently started our chapter, so we are still navigating everything such as the resources we can offer the students and the resources on campus that already exist. Also, getting everyone together was difficult as we are still recovering from COVID-19 as a campus. A lot of departments are still trying to go back to whatever the “norm” is, so that was a struggle to get everyone on board. I also developed sensory issues during the pandemic. During class, I got triggered and had an anxiety attack. I had to leave, and I didn’t know how to tell the professor because I never had issues with that. The DRC put accommodations in to let me leave for 20 minutes to take a breather and have noise cancelling headphones so I can hear the professor and still cancel the other noises I find triggering. They force it on professors, they have to respect your accommodations. 

Why do these challenges exist? 

I think because of the pandemic and the stigma around mental health. Mental health isn’t really supported or talked about well enough. There’s a lot of stigma and misinformation around it that needs to be cleared up. Especially since we are a dorming campus, we have a huge population of students from different backgrounds and cultures. Navigating that and telling students that there are resources you can access that will help you and are here for you. 

What are your most important sources of success and change? 

As a club, we got a lot of help from campus, especially the Psychological Counseling Center (PCC). Dr. Lloyd (Gwenyth Lloyd, the director of the PCC) had a meeting with us, and she was very interested in helping and providing the support we need as a chapter. OASIS/HAVEN was also very helpful in our efforts. We are also planning a Mental Health Fair, and I’m the person leading that. The support we got from departments and individuals on campus was tremendous and really helpful. We also have an amazing e-board. Everyone is really passionate and really wants to make a difference which makes a big difference in actually implementing things. The Mental Health Fair is also very exhausting to plan, so they’ve been very helpful with that. Personally, my sources of success are my friends. The support I got from my friends on campus and back home is the reason I was motivated to be where I am and participate in the leadership positions I hold now to be engaged in service in my community. 

What are changes that you would like to see and be part of?  

I definitely want to see more engagement when it comes to mental health. We have amazing people who want to make a difference, but one person can’t really create the difference. We should all be pushing for changing the conversation and introducing more mental health awareness across campus. We have a lot of issues when it comes to faculty especially. We should push for more training. The PCC leadership tries, but you need a push from above going down to get faculty aware of how to deal with mental health issues. Mental health days should also be incorporated into classes. Professors want doctor documentation for absences, and it doesn’t make sense. I can’t really get you any documentation for a mental health episode, I can only tell you that I have issues with mental health. There isn’t really a lot of understanding. For instance, the English department has a seven absence policy, and there are courses with three classes in a week. If a person has a mental emergency, that takes half of the absences, and if you hit seven, you are automatically kicked out of the courses. The Disability Resources Center (DRC) tries to help, but you have to be formally diagnosed to be a part of it. Many people have mental issues that they can’t access somewhere to get diagnosed. The DRC assumes people get diagnosed in high school when most get diagnosed in college. Many also don’t know these resources are available. The information is not properly told to students, so we’re trying to get this information across.  

Who else needs to be pulled into the conversation?  

We’d definitely love more administrative involvement. We are a relatively new club and still in the process of getting administration involved, so I’m not saying they don’t want to be involved, we just haven’t had that conversation yet. Also, the Student Affairs Office should be looped in. They have something called the Holistic Hawk on campus which is a faculty mental health committee. It’s targeted to help and promote initiatives related to mental health on campus. I would love to have them more involved in the conversation. 

Interview by Marisa Lucchese, Photography BFA as part of a collaborative Interview Book Project in ARS 331 Photo Books and Installations

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