Really stopping at a stop sign

May 28, 2020

A reflection on the Mental Health Coalition’s #HowAreYouReally Challenge

By Veronica Fernandez

In Colombia, we have a troubling conception of stop signs, we consider them a mere suggestion, a lack of acceleration, but we never really pause. When you grow up always running, sometimes decelerating, but never genuinely stopping, a global pandemic will knock you off your feet.

As quickly as the coronavirus came, it took over our lives. While UCLA’s in-person classes were canceled on a Tuesday afternoon, I was on an international flight Thursday night, barely having time to pack up my clothes. I was racing against a closing border, trying to beat the spread of a highly infectious disease. My sophomore year dorm room was not the only thing left intact.

For about a month, I rejected any sort of emotional response to the pandemic. I now realize the effort that took. In my hometown, we were entirely under government-mandated lockdown, only allowed to leave the house for 20 minutes a day. Adapting to this new reality was not easy, but I did what I do best. I kept myself busy. I worried about final exams, turning in final assignments, helping around the house, exercising, and consciously made no time to sit and think. During March, boredom was the enemy. I naively believed that the situation was only temporary. I would be on a plane back to Los Angeles in no time, and everything would be fine. I thought the pandemic was more like a Colombian stop sign, less like a full-stop red light.

Now don’t get me wrong, I was well aware of the historical moment that I was living and the gravity of the situation. I recognized the toll that this global pandemic was having on people’s jobs, people’s lives. It saddened me to think about people losing jobs, people losing their family members, people living with anxiety and depression, people feeling alone. Nevertheless, in comparison to these issues, my feelings, and my concerns seemed irrelevant. During the first month of the pandemic, any moment feelings spurred up, I found myself dismissing them and thinking:
Do you know how many people in the world would love to have your problems?

And this was enough—for a while. This was avoidance disguised as gratitude, a ticking time bomb.

Around the end of April, however, I started to feel pain. A very discreet and familiar pain in my right knee. As the weeks went by, the pain got worse to the point where walking was painful. Even more distressing was the silence, the need to stay still. My body was telling me to stop, to slow down, perhaps most importantly, to heal. This was a strange concept because I have always been the kind of person to heal through movement.
Now, this was a challenge.

For a while, I had also seen my social media change. Coronavirus not only increased my friend’s Instagram activity but did so with a jarring degree of frankness, alien to the otherwise curated portfolio that was our social media norm. People were juggling toilet paper in sweatpants, posting wacky images of hand-drawn carrots, or attempting to do mediocre push-ups. It turns out, while the world stayed at home, we were more likely to open our socially-distant doors to strangers and share a more real piece of ourselves.

The real challenge for society is to destigmatize mental health. The members of a newly formed Mental Health Coalition (MHC), comprised of a selection of organizations and individuals who share the common goal of destigmatizing mental health. This group, among them UCLA’s Depression Grand Challenge, have proposed an envisioned future in which we view mental illness like any other disease. A future where we celebrate mental health diversity and where people openly seek treatment with the hope of living a more fulfilling life.

To start more open dialogue, MHC launched the #howareyoureally challenge, in which participants upload a short video to their Instagram openly answering the question: how are you, really?

When I initially saw the challenge, I thought it would be complicated to launch this type of initiative over Instagram. For the longest time, it has seemed as though Instagram had become less realistic by the day. I thought social media would be the last place that people would want to answer such a question. But given that it launched during a global pandemic, the default answer was no longer: I’m great! Look at how great my life is!

Listening to people talk about being scared, anxious, and depressed felt refreshing and comforting. I realized I was not alone. For the longest time, I had felt guilty for feeling bad, stressed, and anxious. Being physically hurt left a lot of time for me to stop and reflect all the other ways, I was neglecting my emotional health. The #howareyoureallychallenge reminded me that I deserved to feel these things. Feeling bad was not selfish or ungrateful. Instead, not allowing these feelings was the result of an institutionalized stigma, it was aggression towards myself and others. I was missing self-compassion.

Watching people open up on my social media was infectious. I wondered how many people had felt like talking about their mental health made them seem ungrateful. I wondered how many people could I empower to realize that being stressed and anxious is normal—especially during a global pandemic.

I wanted to do things a little differently. I wanted to send letters. The #howareyoureallychallenge felt like something I could replicate on pen and paper. It felt like something to which I could dedicate time and effort. I sat down one afternoon and wrote it all down. Being vulnerable with a piece of paper made me more comfortable than addressing my mental health publicly on the internet. I sealed these papers in envelopes, disinfected them, and sent a total of six letters in the mail to close friends and family. These are the people I hadn’t seen in weeks except for video calls or texts. It felt daring to challenge isolation with intimacy in the form of heartfelt letters.

Two weeks later, I had six letters back, and a couple of friends who were inspired enough to send their #howareyoureally letters to others. I felt close to these people for the first time in a while. Every time a letter came in the mail, it made me feel more grateful and less alone. Every note was like a hug from a loved one— almost as valuable as gold right now.
And then I realized why asking myself #howareyoureally felt so lovely. It was like a big accepting hug to myself. The next time I drive, I’ll make sure to completely stop at a stop sign, if not for safety, then to pause and think: How are you, really?

Learn more about the Mental Health Coalition website and the Coalition’s #HowAreYouReallyChallenge.

Read more about the DGC joining the Mental Health Coalition. For COVID-19–related mental health resources, please visit