The S.H.O.E.S. Project was displayed on campus Feb. 11 to help students who may be dealing with challenging times. (Photos and video by Cliff Hollis)

Students take a walk in others’ shoes to raise mental health awareness

Feb. 15, 2016

By Jules Norwood
ECU News Services

Hundreds of pairs of shoes, each with a story to tell, filled the mall near the cupola on East Carolina University’s campus on Feb. 11.

The S.H.O.E.S. Project, which stands for Students Honoring Others’ Everyday Struggles, was organized to raise awareness of mental health issues and to inform students of available resources.

Nearly 200 pairs of shoes were donated by ECU students to be displayed during the event, said Waz Miller, director of residence life. Students also provided anonymous stories about the challenges faced by others and themselves, and each story was attached to a pair of shoes.

“Natalie: She is gorgeous and put together on the outside but feels like a mess on the inside. She is living in chaos, trying to act happy when her world is falling apart,” read the note on a pair of black flats.

Ben’s Topsiders bore the message, “He has extreme mood swings and doesn’t know why. He wakes up and is really down, or really happy. He does not feel balanced and wonders if something is wrong with him.”

“There’s a stigma in America about mental health that keeps people from seeking help,” said sophomore Autumn Varner. “It’s important to raise awareness and let people know that it’s not a bad thing, and that they’re not the only one.”
SHOESJermica Mumford writes on the Worthy Wall.

Signs throughout the mall provided eye-opening information related to depression and suicide, like the fact that suicide takes twice as many lives annually in North Carolina than homicide, and that less than 25 percent of people with depression receive adequate care, despite the availability of resources.

Student radio station WZMB 91.3 FM broadcast live during the event, and hot cocoa and cookies helped ward off the cold.

“We wanted to do something that would let the students know they’re not alone, and also to let others know how to help,” Miller said. “We felt the shoes were something everyone can identify with.”

Other signs pointed out that warning signs precede most suicides, and friends and loved ones can help by making sure someone who talks about suicide or feels hopeless or trapped receives the care they need.

Counselors were on hand in a private setting to speak confidentially with students and provide information to connect them with crisis resources.

In conjunction with the display of shoes and stories were positive messages throughout campus. The So Worth Living student organization displayed a Worthy Wall, where students and passersby could write down why they are worthy of love.

“Because I am a person and every person is worth loving,” wrote Varner.

The Pitt County Schools Health Sciences Academy assisted in creating thousands of inspirational Post-it notes that were left in residence halls and classroom buildings for students to find throughout the day. ECU Transit also joined in with positive messages on the buses’ marquees and Post-it notes onboard.

“We wanted to be proactive in focusing on mental health, and get people help before it gets to the point of suicide,” said Brianna Garbacik, ECU junior and S.H.O.E.S. Project student coordinator.

Student organizations can help, she said, like So Worth Loving and To Write Love on Her Arms, as well as a counseling center located in Umstead Hall. Event organizers also provided information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK, and a list of additional crisis organizations.

“As college students it’s hard to maintain that balance of staying happy while getting your work done, so it can be really stressful,” said sophomore Danielle Livolsi, who stopped to write on the Worthy Wall. “Something like this is great, raising awareness while you just walk through.”

College students can be particularly susceptible to depression, anxiety, stress and thoughts of self-harm, but may think they can manage on their own, Miller added. “Saying ‘I need help’ is not a sign of weakness; in fact, it shows amazing strength, and we are here to help you.”

In addition to reaching out to ECU students, the ECU student organizations and staff will be hosting similar events this spring at Hope Middle School and D.H. Conley High School. “Middle school and high school are times that can be hard on everyone, too,” said S.H.O.E.S. volunteer Mikayla Potkey.

Sydney Parker reads the note attached to a pair of shoes during the S.H.O.E.S. Project. Each pair of shoes carried a story about one person’s challenges in order to spread the message that those who are suffering are not alone.