In the wake of a pandemic that’s spurred mental health concerns among many college students, two Clemson seniors have paved the way for making conversations about mental health more accessible and encouraged.
In January, senior political science major Emily Daly — along with her close friend Henry, a senior marketing major — launched Clemson’s chapter of If You’re Reading This, an organization built on students telling stories about their mental health in a candid, conversational way. Since the chapter’s founding, five letters from Clemson students have been published, all of which have received an outpour of support from the community.
When asked about starting the organization, Daly said, “It had always been in the back of my mind for a really long time.” Daly first heard about If You’re Reading This while a freshman at Clemson. One day, while scrolling through her Facebook feed, Daly noticed two University of Virginia (UVA) students from her high school had shared letters about their mental health journey on social media.
“I thought it was crazy that the first two letters I read were from girls who went to my small school in D.C.,” said Daly. After reading the letters, Daly was not only moved by the openness of these women, but the way in which they made their letters so conversational about a topic many fear talking about — online or in real life.
The story of If You’re Reading This begins in fall of 2016. A group of UVA students, including founder Alexandra Pentel, got together to create a support network to destigmatize mental illness across college campuses. These students felt there was a clear need for such an organization — social media campaigns felt trite, professional counseling lacked real intimacy and instilled fear into many students who were apprehensive about revealing their own struggles. In an effort to create this desired support network, Pentel and her peers launched If You’re Reading This, an online publication of letters about mental health struggles from students at UVA.
Since its founding in 2016, If You’re Reading This has expanded to Georgia Tech and in 2021, Villanova and Clemson. Mental health issues, particularly among college-aged students, have skyrocketed across the country since the start of the pandemic. Daly felt that the exigency for starting this organization could not have been clearer.
Travelling back to the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns in March 2020, Daly painted a scene of what her days felt like — often blending together with little consolation in sight. It was at the brink of a breakdown when she realized it was time to bring the back-of-her-mind idea of starting a Clemson If You’re Reading This chapter to fruition.
rom that moment, it was full speed ahead. Daly grabbed her computer, looked up Pentel’s contact information and sent her an email inquiring about starting a new chapter. “I told her, I don’t even know if this is possible, but I really want to bring this to Clemson’s campus,” Daly said. Well, it was possible, and before she knew it, it was happening.
After Daly spoke with Pentel, she immediately called Henry, her close friend from Clemson. “It was a no brainer, instant reaction,” Daly said. Henry had to be part of this journey, too.
Daly and Henry became friends freshman year, but they did not get close until early spring of their junior year. While on the way to a formal event, they talked on the bus for a long time, opening up about parts of their life they hadn’t shared with many people before. From that moment, their friendship opened a door into a room where being vulnerable about real struggles felt safe. Fast forward to May 2020, and Henry joined Daly as the co-founder of Clemson’s If You’re Reading This chapter.
“I was playing pool with two of my friends and noticed I was getting a call from Emily,” said Henry. Daly told Henry about her plans to start this organization, and Henry was instantly on board. “I was so excited — I immediately called my parents to tell them about this opportunity.” said Henry. “Mental health is something I’ve cared a lot about for a long time and having the opportunity to normalize conversations about it was something I was immediately passionate about.”
From May to January, Daly and Henry organized the chapter and prepared for the January launch. This entire seven-month journey was not all uphill, though. Daly recalled initially telling friends and their response: “People couldn’t visualize it,” she said. Nerves kicked in and Daly began to worry about the prospect of this chapter: “I thought, ‘what if we can’t even get it off the ground?’ — so I told everyone I knew.” By the end of the fall semester, they had a set of letters ready to go, and January could not come faster.
After the launch of the first letter, responses online erupted. Daly recalled checking her inbox to open an email that said the letter had been shared on the Clemson parent page. “A parent sent it to their child who was struggling but they didn't know how to help them,” said Daly. The mother told Daly that the platform felt a bit more approachable than going through the school. On Instagram, If You’re Reading This quickly gained traction and support from Clemson students. In no time, five more students reached out to Daly and Henry, eager to share the stories of their mental health journey. With such a positive response, Henry knew it was time for him to publish his own letter.
“I felt a lot of pressure, this was the second thing I put out into the world like this,” he said. Henry explained that he has always loved writing but did not share his work publicly until summer of 2020 --: a year since the passing of his best friend, Thomas Few. “I wrote about Thomas and a lot of people reached out about how impactful it was,” said Henry.
However, unlike the process of writing about his friend, Henry spent many hours at the drawing board, thinking and writing, trying to figure out how to articulate his journey with mental health. But after reading the first published If You’re Reading This letter — written by senior psychology major Avery Erikson — he scrapped all of his work.
Henry recalled the lightbulb moment he had after reading the letter in which, “like a flip switch,” he knew exactly what to write about. “After reading Avery’s letter, I started completely from scratch and wrote it all within an hour,” . The next week, Henry’s letter was published to If You’re Reading This and the students’ response erupted again. “I had people texting me I had never texted before — older guys in my fraternity, my mom’s friends — and since then I’ve been able to meet with people about their struggles and mentor younger guys.”
Since Henry’s letter was shared, three more letters have been published with equal levels of engagement. “One guy has started an anonymous subcommittee within his fraternity for a group of guys to talk about mental health,” said Daly. Henry accredited part of his reason for doing this to the If You’re Reading This chapter. “We’re reaching people I never thought I would reach,” said Henry. “It’s kind of crazy —lots of people from other schools, too.”
As second semester seniors, Daly and Henry’s time at Clemson is quickly coming to a close, but the impact this organization has had on them will travel well into their future. “I feel more confident in my story, where I’ve been and where I’m going,” said Henry. “It’s also made me more accessible — getting to talk with people from different walks of life.” Henry has been passionate about mental health for years, but it was not until If You’re Reading This that he was given a strong platform to speak out. “I feel ready to go into environments that are different from what I’m used to and escape my comfort zone.”
As for Daly, she noted that If You’re Reading This will undoubtedly mold its way into her professional career. “I know I will talk about this in every interview,” said Daly. “The feeling I get from this organization,” she pauses: “that’s something I want —I want that feeling every single day when I’m working.” While Daly did not explicitly define this feeling, her altruistic passion for destigmatizing mental health reverberated through her words. Upon graduation, Daly will be serving on the national If You’re Reading This board.
When asked about the future of the organization, Daly and Henry both emphasized they will be passing the torch to a strong group of leaders. Logistically, they hope to be able to hold events and speakers in the post-COVID future and continue to watch the chapter grow. “Ten years down the road it’s hopefully as well-known as a student organization like Fellowship for Christian Athletes,” said Henry. “I’m looking forward to reading letters from big names (such as President Clements and Coach Sweeney) around the Clemson community.”
To read more about If You’re Reading This, visit www.ifyourereadingthis.org