I got the following email from the Athletic Director for Robert Morris University today:
I am writing in apology that the Robert Morris University Women's Dance routine and costume was perceived negatively, as you have described in your letter. In no way did the students and/or the coaches plan to poke fun at, or discriminate against, any persons. At RMU, we hold all of our student-athletes to the core Champions of Character standards which include; Respect, Responsibility, Servant Leadership, Sportsmanship, and Integrity.
Our dance ladies are truly saddened that their dance has had this negative impact on your family. As mentioned, all of our athletes are involved in service and volunteer projects, and we would be more than happy to entertain any service ideas that you have pertaining to persons with mental illness. Oportunities such as these would serve as both a learning and service project, and truly teach life lessons.
We applaud you for being a strong advocate, and would be appreciative if you would accept our apology. Thank you.
~Megan M. Smith Eggert~
Director of Athletics
Robert Morris University
And I replied:
Dear Ms. Smith Eggert:
Thank you for your letter. I appreciate your taking the time to address my letter to Mr. Viollt, Ms. Heller and her staff. I have gotten some comments on my blog (www.chrisahickey.com) and one email from an RMU dance team student and, while I understand that they don't fully understand my motivation, I appreciate...most of their comments.
I do want to reply to you what I replied to the one student who emailed me directly. My biggest concern about the costumes is that these young women are at exactly the age when most mental illnesses hit. Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia routinely begin showing between 15-24, and college students are particularly susceptible to depression. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for persons their age, and NIMH statistics show that between 10 and 20% of them will experience some type of mental health concern in their lifetime. Even more concerning is that more than 60% of them will never get treatment, and a major reason for that is the stigma they fear of persons with mental illness, because of how they are portrayed in the media and entertainment. Think of it this way - of the 30 or so girls on your three dance teams, between 3 and 6 of them either have or will develop depression, bipolar disorder, paralyzing anxiety, or schizophrenia. And, if they'd just done a dance routine dressed as crazed mental patients, would they get help? Would they tell their coach? Their friends? Probably not.
There is a vibrant community of adults with and parents of children with mental illnesses and we connect from all over the country via social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. The concern about the team's costumes wasn't mine alone. I was just the first one to blog about it. I'm not the only. I've talked to a few of them and, considering your offer about service, we feel the best use of the team's time would be to work towards starting a chapter of Active Minds on the Robert Morris University campus. Active Minds is a non-profit organization dedicated to changing the conversation about mental health through student-led discussion and action. College campuses all over the US have Active Minds chapters - a very active and vibrant one is right down the road from you at the School at the Art Institute. It would be wonderful if there were an Active Minds chapter at RMU, started and sponsored by the dance team. You can contact Becky Gordon, the Midwest Coordinator for Active Minds for information on how to start a chapter at RMU. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I have copied her on this email.
My goal with the blog post and, when offered, the interview with John Keilman in the Tribune, was to start the conversation, and to raise awareness that persons with mental health conditions aren't as they are portrayed. If we can save one life at RMU as a result of this, I hope you will share my feeling that it was well worth the publicity.
Thank you again for your letter. And if I can help in any way get an Active Minds chapter up and running at RMU, I am at your disposal. ---------------------------------
Regards, Chrisa Hickey
I hope we can move forward and change the campus of RMU to the betterment of all the students.