Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Say hello to Geetanshi Sharma (she/her), a UC Berkeley junior changing the world with her groundbreaking self-care apps and boundless optimism. This college student is intersecting her love for mental health advocacy with her passion for social justice and literature - read on for your weekly dose of inspiration. You can follow Geetanshi @book.noted and @geetanshis30 to stay up-to-date on her journey.
Tell your audience a little bit about yourself.
My name is Geetanshi, and I'm a current junior at UC Berkeley. I'm majoring in Cognitive Science and minoring in Linguistics and Computer Science, and I'm also doing a certificate in Design Innovation. I'm currently aiming towards being a product designer, specifically a user experience designer. Some things I really care about are mental health and social justice. I'm very involved with that from the literary side because I actually run a book blog and a bookstagram (@book.noted)!
What are you passionate about?
I really care a lot about promoting diversity in the media and in literature, and sharing stories that people don't usually hear. To share those stories and to give voice to underrepresented communities builds empathy, which is something that I think is really missing. It's something people are working towards, especially during quarantine and this past year, but in a lot of ways it's something that the last year has really highlighted is missing in America. I think people really need to take the time out to build empathy for others.
[Reading] has also led me to moments of realization - like how I didn't realize the perspective of someone going through these hardships, but I made a judgment about it beforehand. It's really important to take time and to not succumb to stereotypes.
What's your go-to self-care activity?
I like to write things down. One of my friends actually recommended this to me last year - get out of a piece of paper and make a bunch of boxes for every area of your life. Write down what you're concerned about and why you're feeling stressed, then find achievable things to make you feel feel better. Something that I added was writing down what I'm grateful for in each area. I find writing things down helps me see the problem for what it is. A lot of the time, it seems bigger in my head.
How much mental health awareness is there within your community? What is being done well? What can be improved?
In my home community of first-generation Asian-Americans immigrants there are a lot of
barriers against valuing mental health, the idea of therapy, and taking care of yourself in that way. Something being done well is that I think a lot of the kids who are growing up here are bringing that awareness home, and a lot of parents are being influenced by that despite initial pushback. My parents definitely have been, and have learned about how important [mental health] is.
In terms of things that aren't being done well - it can be very hard to access mental health resources for kids who are struggling at home, especially when you're young. It's really hard to bring it up to your parents because there's such a stigma against it. Older kids and young adults feel more comfortable talking about it with their parents, but [the stigma] prevents many Asian Americans from accessing mental health resources. Giving [this community] free resources or access therapy is what I've tried to do with the products that I've been building.
And then the second community is college students. I went to a very competitive high school and I go to a very competitive college, and I think at the forefront of everyone's mind is their career, academics, getting that 4.0, to the extent that they are willing to sacrifice their mental and physical health to achieve those things.
I've discussed this with a lot of friends and I think something that's going well is that campus counseling centers are getting really good at having resources. When you learn how to utilize those experiences it can be really helpful, but in my experience there's not enough for the demand. It can take a long time to get help when you really need it. Because of stigmas, how difficult the process is, how long it takes to get an appointment with a therapist, etc., a lot of people don't know what to do or just kind of want to struggle on their own instead of getting help.
I do think, though, that in recent years a select few academic departments, if not all, have been encouraging students to think about their mental health and raising awareness of campus resources. But at the same time there are many--especially STEM departments-- who have not, and I don't think the overall mindset within the student population has changed.
Tell us about the two apps you have in development, Self Care and DayBook.
I'll start with Self Care. From students, the main thing I hear is I don't have the time to do self care and I don't have the money to do self care. I was thinking a lot about the issues of people not wanting to go see a therapist or even go to the Counseling Center just because of the time involved. And so the Self Care app was really centered around time. The idea of the app is that students can have auto-generated self care activities based on the amount of time they have. Another issue was that students would say, I don't know what self care activity to do, I don't know what counts as self care, is it just like doing a face mask? My team and I really thought it would be helpful for students to have something where they could say, okay, I have this much time today. I need something that's going to let me take care of myself for this much time and I don't want to spend that time thinking of what to do. The app will give you something to do based on time, and you have a number of health hearts to fill up through the week to complete your self care. You can also add your own activities. We also included a reflection portion where once you complete the activity, you can reflect on how it helped you - whether it was helpful, how you felt afterwards - and you can look back on all of that later.
I had a similar thought process with DayBook, but I wanted to expand on that a little bit with activities personalized to you - similar to what you would get if you saw a therapist for specific struggles. Whereas Self Care is a general app for everyone, I wanted to make something for people who needed a little bit more help but didn't have the time, money, or resources to find a therapist. The idea of DayBook is that it's a personalized intelligent mental health journal alongside self care activities and actionable items. My team and I did a lot of research on the scientific benefits of journaling, and our idea was to have the user tell the app what they were struggling with. If it's a specific mental illness, like anxiety or depression, they would be able to select, and also select what they are struggling with every day. They would be given individualized journal prompts and actionable items that could make them feel better based on what specific thing they were struggling with.
Can you tell us about one person who has been really important to you on your mental health journey?
One person who was the most helpful to me on my mental health journey was my best friend in our freshman year of college. I had experienced something traumatic and I didn't really know what to do with it. I hadn't even considered therapy or getting help as an option because it wasn't something that was talked about as a thing to do. In my community, it was something that people who were problematic did and I never thought that [therapy] was something I could do. My best friend really encouraged me to get help, and while he was always there for me emotionally it was something that required more serious attention that neither of had experience in. He went with me to schedule my first appointment at the Campus Center. It was just really nice to have someone be there for me like that, because it's not something I would have done on my own, and being helped and supported through the process helped combat a lot of the internalized stigma I possessed about asking for help. Therapy, I found, was a lot of work, but along with having friends who kept on encouraging me to go on even when it was hard, it has helped me more than I would have thought possible. I have continued to seek therapy out and have encouraged a lot of my friends to pursue it as well, trying to pass along the same level of support that friend gave me through the process.
Without that friend who really made me feel like it was okay, who was there with me when I was scared to try it out, and who kept on encouraging me to go even when it was hard...I think I really wouldn't be where I’m at right now without him. Honestly.
On priorities as a college student.
I have been dealing with some pretty serious medical challenges the last two years, and that really influenced me to seek out being healthy both emotionally and physically. Especially as college students, we don't normally value our mental and physical health. So when it's taken away from you immediately - that was really a wake up call to me that academics weren't the most important thing in my life. As important as an exam, assignment, or project may be, nothing is more important than you being healthy. I really struggled with that and it took me a while to reorient my priorities, but if there’s one thing I want anyone to take away from this it’s that your mental, emotional, and physical health are deeply intertwined and so genuinely important for you to actively be paying attention to on the daily. Everything else comes after that.