“Instead of changing with the seasons, my style changes with where I’m at emotionally and mentally. My fashion choices are a reflection of this.”
As the President of the UBC Alma Mater Society (AMS), Aaron represents the voices of 51 000 students. Recently, he was also elected by his peers to join the UBC Board of Governors for the 2016- 2017 year. While Aaron is grateful for the many exciting opportunities and responsibilities that have come with fostering student engagement over the years, he shared that much of his motivation to support his peers stems from the personal challenges he faced during his first year of university.
Since his teenage years, Aaron dealt with symptoms of mental illness. However, it was not until he moved across the country to attend university, away from his family and support system, that he “really started to notice within [himself] that something was not super right.”
“The challenges of transitioning to a highly intense learning environment, in combination with being away from my support system, led me to fall into a deep depression. My depression was accompanied by vivid suicidal thoughts which I grappled with for many months…to the point that I came close to attempting suicide,” Aaron shared honestly.
“In that time, I was able to realize – through the help of some close friends – that this was not normal, and that this was not a situation that I had to deal with by myself. Instead, it was something I could seek help with. I started a journey, which I’m still on, of recognizing symptoms of mental illness that I see within myself, and dealing with them in a way that I see fit. So, I still struggle with depression and anxiety, but I have become more conscious of my thoughts and emotions. I can recognize when it’s necessary to seek help and find healthy ways to cope.”
When I asked Aaron about how his mental health influences his style, he responded thoughtfully.
“My depression factors in how much effort I choose to put into my style. I have found that when I’m depressed, I don’t think very consciously about what I’m wearing. This contributes to the lack of confidence, lack of feeling, and lack of self-expression that I experience. By recognizing this, I am able to push myself to think critically about what I’m wearing.
When I am thoughtfully dressing myself and expressing myself, it actually helps my depression,” Aaron explained.
Aaron also shared that his confidence in bold fashion choices is affected significantly by his anxiety. During times where he has a
more critical perspective towards his “outward appearance,” he is less likely to choose a floral shirt, bright colours, or bold prints. He will often opt for a neutral palette that is more calming.
“Overall, on most occasions, I would define my clothing style as either minimalist or maximalist. My style goes from one extreme to the other…from muted to explosive. There’s no in between,” he said with a grin.
Aaron elaborated to explain that on some days, he is a “huge fan of patterns,” and other days, he is a “huge fan of neutrals.”
“I pay close attention to details. I’m really into matching my accessories with my footwear. I like classic pieces when it comes to denim and leather, incorporating natural elements when possible.”
In alignment with that attention to detail, Aaron pointed at the tattoo on his arm.
“Tattoos also mean a lot to me. This tattoo on my forearm was drawn by a close friend who was a big component of my self-discovery and my struggles with mental illness during that first year of university. She drew it for me before things got rough, and it ultimately became a symbol of forward progression in light of hardship. I always return to it as a visual representation of a time that I got through something really difficult. It’s a daily reminder of resilience and pushing through challenges with the help of others,” Aaron elaborated.
Quick Questions with Aaron
What is something that people may be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a pretty sensitive person at heart. I think empathically and I feel a lot, but sometimes I have trouble expressing that or having people recognize that side of me. Most of the time, I’m seen through the lens of my professional life as a Type A personality, heavily focused on leadership and efficiency. However, many activities and hobbies that I enjoy in my personal life, such as music, art, and fashion, evoke feeling from the human condition. They matter a lot to me, but it may not come across this way at face value.
When have you surprised yourself with something you accomplished?
I continuously surprise myself with the things that I am able to accomplish through the mutual support of other people. This past year, I had the opportunity to give a speech to all 8 000 first year students on Imagine Day at UBC. My speech was 4 minutes and 30 seconds, and I spent a full two months preparing to speak on vulnerability and being open about the struggles you have. Just 45 minutes before my presentation, I re-wrote the speech entirely. I thought it was going to flop, but I surprised myself with how eloquently I delivered it while still getting my key points across. Afterwards, I wrote a follow-up blog post that dove more into my more personal story. It was surreal for me. I thought, “is this actually happening?”
What strategies have helped you along your mental health journey?
- Speaking up: I force myself to talk to other people about what I feel. This is not specifically in a professional context. It’s honest conversations with my friends, my family, and with other people…publicly. It’s the act of getting my feelings out verbally. It really helps me.
- Music: Music is also really important to me…playing instruments, singing, listening to music, going to concerts…it moves me and helps me with my depression in particular. It reminds me about feeling and about meaning in the world. My musical taste is even more fluid than my style!
- Physical activity: Exercise and running has been really helpful for my anxiety. Anxiety has been the central challenge that I’ve dealt with this year in this office. For me, getting active has been the best way to slash through the anxiety. The endorphins help.
- Mindfulness: I have been trying to get up at 7am each morning to spend 15 minutes breathing and clearing my head.
Overall, I’m slowly building a toolkit of strategies to use when things do not go as planned.
What advice would you offer to others who may be dealing similar mental health challenges?
I can really only speak to people who may think like me. You are never too important to be vulnerable. There is never too much weight on your shoulders to put the brakes on. There is no point of going through life struggling with things when you can address them. Maybe it will take time, and maybe it will initially be perceived as a weakness, but it’s not worth it to drag boulders behind you as you progress forward. Looking back at my first year of university, I can see that I could have done so much better if I had stopped, got my bearings, and then proceeded. Never be afraid to take that time for yourself. It’s okay to step away from things and come back to them, because you’ve got a lot of life ahead of you. It’s not worth feeling like you have to “fight” your way through it.
Considering the obstacles that you have faced over the years, what do you feel most proud of?
Alongside presenting the Imagine Day speech, I’m also proud of my propensity to learn through my experiences. I’ve really come a long way: from thinking that I knew it all, to being very open about not knowing anything. This is reflected a lot in my improved willingness to dedicate my time to other people. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that the time we give to someone else is worth five times what it’s worth to us. I’m proud of that realization, as this has been taught to me by all the people in my life. That’s how opportunities arise, and that’s how you change people’s lives. You give them your time. You give them your expertise. You empathize and feel what they’re feeling.
While Aaron nears the end of his term as UBC AMS President and wraps up his Bachelor’s degree in analytical chemistry and plant physiology, it is clear that his profound, positive impact at UBC and beyond will be long-lasting. We appreciate his willingness to be vulnerable, to listen, and to give voice to challenges that many of us face (oftentimes silently).