This time last year, I wasn’t completely myself.
Last November I had my first of many panic attacks. I was at my student house attempting to complete an essay that was due two days later, and I broke down. I lost control of my emotions and started screaming and crying. My housemate came rushing to my room because she thought someone had died. I called my parents and my dad drove from Mississauga to Hamilton to bring me home.
I felt hopeless. It was an immense and overwhelming stress and sadness that I couldn’t control no matter what I did.
I talked to my friends and family about the stress I was feeling, and they all assured me that this was a normal thing to happen to someone my age, and that I would bounce back in no time.
But I didn’t. The stress got worse, and suddenly what was once just mental frustration was beginning to disrupt my physical health. I couldn’t sleep, I would forget to eat, I started fainting and was rushed to the hospital on more than one occasion. I had lost control of myself, and thought that if I ignored the warning signs long enough, they would simply just disappear. In an attempt to turn my life back around, I resorted to unhealthy coping mechanisms that included repetitive, ritualized behavior, such as obsessive counting and forcing myself to stay awake.
The stress was tough, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that I was dealing with something greater than everyday worry.
“Everyone has stress, and especially everyone has stress around exam time,” explained Debra Earl, a nurse with the Student Wellness Centre’s Mental Health Team. “But with people who are exposed to a lot of stress, often depression can result.”
Hearing a word like depression used to describe yourself can be shocking and disheartening. Months after that particular breakdown, my inability to focus and sleep continued, and my unhealthy coping mechanisms became a default. After running from my problem for months, I realized that my symptoms were not going to go away on their own and soon after, I was diagnosed with a combination of general anxiety, depression and early signs of obsessive compulsive disorder.
“People will be struggling with a lot of symptoms, with their anxiety, with their depression, trying to manage it on their own, until it affects their academics. Then they realize, this is bigger than me, I can’t do this by myself,” said Earl.
When I was struggling with my health last year, the hardest part about finding help was accepting that I had a problem and asking for help. I was always really “normal” when it came to school, so having troubles with stress was surprising and hard to understand. But even if you don’t have a history of mental illness, during times of high stress, anything is possible.
“People who have never come in before are coming in and its beyond the stage of just dealing with stress, it’s often resulted in an anxiety disorder,” said Earl in reference to a number of students who approach the SWC for help.
Mental illness is not something uncommon among students our age, and it’s not something to be ashamed of either.
In the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, 17 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15, approximately 4.9 million individuals, perceived themselves as having a need for mental health care in the past 12 months. It’s not a rare problem, yet for some reason, reaching out for help feels embarrassing and over dramatic.
“It would be better if people came in sooner, but most people don’t come in until a crisis has resulted,” explained Earl when speaking about early diagnosis.
There’s no reason to feel guilty, ashamed, or disappointed for feeling sick. It may not be something you have control over anymore and its ok to seek help for it. If I had dealt with my problem earlier on, I probably would have had a much more positive year and I would have found healthy coping mechanisms earlier on.
Earl encourages students who are having difficulties coping with stress to reconsider their eating and sleeping habits and make time for activities outside of school work.
If your stress is keeping you up at night, interfering with your work, or is making you feel unwell, reach out to a friend, family member, your physician, or one of the many resources on campus. Or even if you find that a friend or relative is acting out of character, initiate discussion, they may just be waiting for someone to approach them.
Running away from your problems is easy at the beginning, but trust me, they’ll catch up to you before you catch up to yourself.
If you feel that life is not worth living, and have felt that way for quite some time, then you may have depression.
If you do poorly on a test, you are dejected. You are not depressed.
If you are driven to distraction every time a volume dial isn’t left on a multiple of five, you may have OCD.
If you like to have all your dirty laundry in your hamper, then you are a tidy person. You do not have OCD.
Our culture is consumed by hyperbole. You aren’t hungry — you’re starving. You hit your snooze button a million times this morning. Your backpack weighs more than an elephant, because your laptop is from the Stone Age. Things are never good enough the way they are. Everything needs to be extreme, to be epic. This inflation is fine for mundane complaints, but when it starts to extend into subjects such as mental health, it becomes problematic.
The language we use to describe ourselves and our feelings has implications that reach far further than some angsty Facebook statuses. Saying that you’re “depressed” because Breaking Bad ended negates the actual depression that I feel because my brain chemistry is messed up.
I’m not just griping because I want to feel special and exclusive. The appropriation of mental illness is troubling because it obscures the actual cries for help. When someone says “I’m really depressed and overwhelmed right now,” they should be met with concern, empathy, suggestions to visit the Wellness Centre, open arms and minds, not “yeah, me too, I only got a C on that paper!”
Generally, if you can fix your mood with a trip to Yogurty’s, you are not depressed. It is incredibly difficult to come forwards and ask for help, so please don’t trivialize it.
The appropriation of mental illness goes beyond depression. Think of all the times you’ve heard people describe themselves as “OCD.” First, no one is OCD—that’s like saying “I am chickenpox.” OCD is a potentially debilitating illness that causes intrusive unpleasant thoughts if certain compulsions are not recognized. Liking exactly two and half sugar cubes in your tea is just picky. Likewise, ADD and ADHD are medical conditions, not trendy excuses for laziness or always checking Facebook. It’s important not to obscure the needs of people battling mental illness just to attempt to make yourself stand out.
It’s even worse when this language contributes to the stigma. Calling the weather “bi-polar” may not seem like a big deal, but it plays into all the negative stereotypes of the disorder. Same with calling some a “Schizo”: it’s obviously rude, but it also attributes negative behaviour to the disorder that doesn’t even fit the diagnosis.
Using clinical definitions does not mean you have a varied vocabulary. It means you are obscuring the seriousness of actual issues. If someone tells you they are depressed, reach out. Take it seriously. Don’t let hyperbole prevent you from helping someone in need.