Sunshine in the Hearts

My GLI Global Theme is Exploring Mental Health, particularly among college students. This topic plays into the well-being of an individual and the productivity and happiness of a society. I arrived in Lille, France, assuming I would be awaited by some romantic, French enlightenment on this issue.  In fact, I discovered a richer complexity to mental health, and the need for time and patience to influence.

Lille, France, may be unknown by many Americans, but it is located in the center of a triangle of three major international cities: Brussels, London, and Paris. This means that it is a melting pot of multiple cultures, filled with international students and habitants, immigrants and refugees. Despite its convenient location as a stopping-point between cities, very few people speak English, forcing me into a rapid state of improving my French.  This was utterly terrifying, because French people tend to not smile.  As an American, eye contact results in an awkward smile, and anything less is interpreted as hostile. However, I quickly learned that the French method of communication is simply different, and the people are often very kind and ready to help.

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The favorite saying in Lille translates as follows: “In the North, the sunshine is not in the sky, but in the heart of the people.” I have never been so surprised by the kindness of strangers, despite their grimacing faces.  Unfortunately, vulnerability is not an easily accessible thing.  Only now, after five months of living alongside am I starting to glimpse the culture regarding mental health. It is rather surprising to find that it remains very heavily stigmatized.  According to the Psychology students, if a French person discovers that you study Psychology, they instantaneously create space.  Very few students use the resources, or are aware that they exist for free on campus.  In addition, the resources are incredibly lacking for international students, as they have counselors only in French and it may take weeks or months of paperwork before you one can access the services.  I learned patience during my time in France, thanks to the French administration (a worker’s smoke break is completely permissible, despite a line of waiting clients), being friends with Italians (“J’arrive” doesn’t mean “I’m arriving” but “I am still at home, in the shower, and will leave in an hour”), and waiting for the French to come out of their shells.

Once a French person has allowed you to integrate in their life, you are truly family.  This is one of the most beautiful experiences.  My confidence in quickly changing the world has diminished, but my curiosity for other cultures and places steadily grows.  I have learned that simply asking questions and listening can create a safer place.  Some questions, about mental health, are incredibly scary, but these questions have the ability to change lives by creating a dialogue – interior or exterior, and this potential is found only in already formed relationships. This is a form of personal leadership, accessible by anyone willing to take the time and effort to learn and share. Despite the challenges of living in such a stigmatized and different society, I crave to return and continue to search for a healthier world.

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I have so much more I could write about – Christmas with Italian families, force-feeding me and teaching me important words such as “MANGI!”, sharing Stroopwaffles with strangers in the Netherlands, or becoming a connoisseur of Belgian Fries.  I return to the US in one week with a full stomach and full heart.

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