Shortly after graduating from college at Ohio Wesleyan University in 2009, where she studied psychology and sociology, Hilary Cessna traveled the country facilitating workshops to help college women build skills in leadership, conflict-management, minimizing risky behavior, and effective communication. She quickly noticed an alarming pattern: many participants struggled with setting personal boundaries and advocating for their own needs due to a lack of confidence. As a result, many spiraled into anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or engaging in risky behavior.
She saw the story unfold up close when a friend struggled with an eating disorder. But as her friend recovered from the illness, Cessna witnessed a remarkable change in her friend’s behavior and mindset. “She gained an understanding of her personal boundaries and developed skills to effectively communicate these to others.” Observing the skills her friend developed in her recovery, Cessna realized that the ability to advocate for oneself was critical to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“By learning self-advocacy skills, I believe that individuals can improve their life by relinquishing their perceived notion that others control them, ultimately gaining control of their own lives,” Cessna explains.
Now, the University of New Hampshire School of Law student is leading a self-advocacy program for young men and women for her Schweitzer Fellowship project.
“Society rarely teaches us or provides us with a safe place to learn how to advocate for ourselves,” says Cessna. “Self-advocacy is a learned skill, and it is valuable for women and men of all ages to develop.”
In collaboration with the Manchester, NH-based Families in Transition, Cessna trains participants on how to confidently and effectively advocate for themselves, with the goal of helping them maintain boundaries and control over their lives, thus minimizing the risk of mental health issues or engaging in unsafe behaviors.
Cessna believes that mental health is among the most pressing health issues of our time. “Not only do we need more readily available resources for individuals in need of mental health care, but we also need to overcome the stigma surrounding mental health,” she says. While people often have no problem discussing physical ailments and injuries with friends and family, many become uncomfortable when those same loved ones say, “I’m depressed,” or “I have an eating disorder,” Cessna observes.
“Unfortunately, this leaves individuals without many resources or people to turn to in times of need,” she says. “As a society, we need to become more comfortable with discussing mental health and stop attaching a stigma to it. Only after we do so will individuals feel more comfortable utilizing mental health resources.”
Before establishing her partnership with Families in Transition, Cessna conducted the first session with women from the local community this past fall, where she saw participants’ communication skills steadily improve over the course of the program. “Every week we started with a reflection from what the participants observed or practiced,” she says. “I enjoyed hearing the participants communicate with one another about how they practiced a new communication style or noticed how another person tried to communicate with them. I felt confident that the participants were ready to incorporate these skills into their lives and help others do the same.”
Cessna also hopes to establish a separate “Facilitator Training Program” to train community leaders to facilitate the program to help members of their organizations develop self-advocacy skills. “My hope is for the self-advocacy training program to impact the lives of others within our community well beyond my Fellowship year.”
Cessna is enjoying the collaborative nature of the Schweitzer Fellowship. “The program has provided me with mentors and other Schweitzer Fellows who encourage me to keep going. The experience can be overwhelming, but I know that I have a strong support system which motivates me. I didn’t expect this and I am very thankful for the people who have been helping me along the way,” she says.
“I am inspired by the projects other Fellows have completed, especially at the UNH School of Law,” adds Cessna. “I am honored to have the opportunity to work with such a motivated, multidisciplinary group and learn from other people about the needs of the community.”