Editor’s note: The following article discusses mental illness and suicide.
Let’s talk about suicide. In recent years, mental health and wellness have secured a place near the top of the list of student issues, but suicide has not. People don’t talk about suicide — not out in the open, at least.
If I didn’t know how much it would hurt my mother, I would have ended my life. For about a two-year stretch, I thought that nearly every day. In the last five years, 10 suicides have taken place on campus, a small number in the spectrum of the university population, but as campus wellness director Walter Mittelstaedt said: even one is too many.
There have been times in the past when I’ve stood on a curb, waiting for traffic to pass so I can jaywalk to the other side of the street, and I’ve thought about not waiting. I’ve thought about stepping onto the road and letting the next car hit me so that I can take a break. A few minutes of chaos and then I would drift off into the dream-like state I’d always imagined death to be. I could stop worrying about essays and exams and jobs and friends and Imprint and my family and my relationship status and every other worry that enters my mind.
I cannot count how many times I’ve stood on the side of the road and thought that. For a long time, I was ashamed about how much I thought that. The rational part of my mind knew it was a bad idea. It reminded me that there are people who love me, who would be heartbroken if I was gone. It reminded me that things will get better, I’m just visiting this bad place, I don’t live here. It tells me that all I have to do is ask for help. But when you have depression, the rational part of your brain is, more often than not, dominated by the depressed part.
Mental health is a huge topic of discussion on campuses across the country, and UW is no exception. With the new Health Services building came an expansion of their mental health resources. Feds has a mental health committee, and student organizations like Stand Up To Stigma, Burst Your Bubble, and jack.org are advocating to end the stigma around mental health. Bell Let’s Talk day and our own campus’ Mental Wellness Day attempt to end stigmas and encourage those in need to seek help.
I spoke with Zara Wong, Stand Up To Stigma’s event co-ordinator, about the organization’s contribution to mental health awareness on campus. It was formed by a pair of grad students in 2012.
“We’re very concerned about the way media and society views mental illness and the stigma that’s associated with it,” Wong said adding that many people don’t know about or understand illnesses like depression and anxiety.
I can speak from experience that depression is incredibly isolating. Even the most understanding people will never understand my personal journey with mental illness, and likewise I will never fully understand someone else’s. I have amazing friends who I am so grateful for, but through absolutely no fault of their own, they just don’t get it. Even I, as someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, have caught myself rolling my eyes before when I hear someone else using their own struggle to call in sick to work or to bail on a school assignment.
Stand Up To Stigma hosts discussion groups every other Tuesday in MC. Wong said they only get a handful of students and are unsure how to reach more people. I think the group discussions are a good idea. They, along with counselling services’ program MATES, a one-on-one peer support, are something I would fully take advantage of now. But when I was in my darkest places, when I needed help more than anything, I never in a million years would have gone to any form of peer support.
It took many years, a serious breakup and a lot of begging from my mother to get me to walk into the Counselling Services office. Then it took about a month of waiting for my first appointment. And then when I was walking to the bus to go to my first appointment, I got a call saying the counsellor I was meeting was taking a sick day and I’d have to reschedule. The next available time was a month later.
But every time I see someone comment about Counselling Services’ wait times on OMGUW or reddit, I remember back to all the waiting I did in the last few years and how in some of those times waiting, I almost didn’t make it through.
“This is like the Dark Ages as far as I’m concerned. How could we do that to people who are in crisis? Tell them to wait?” asked mathematics student Elana Hashman of Counselling Services’ wait times. It’s a catch-22: reducing the stigma means more students are seeking help for mental health issues, and that increase in volume means Counselling Services’ resources are stretched. But that fact does not make waiting any easier for those who need help.
“On a campus like this or really any other jurisdiction, you can’t possibly keep up with the need in terms of the kind of concerns, kind of distress that students have,” Mittelstaedt said. Changes are in the works for Counselling Services’ patient intake process, but they won’t happen overnight. Mittelstaedt said that appointments for new patients should be made based on urgency.
Fast-forward two years and I have an amazing counsellor and a very supportive doctor at Health Services, and together we have a plan. A plan that has taken many years and more work than I could ever explain, but it is a plan and it makes me confident about my life. But every time I see someone comment about Counselling Services’ wait times on OMGUW or reddit, I remember back to all the waiting I did in the last few years and how in some of those times waiting, I almost didn’t make it through.
“I personally have no idea how to fix the problem. I go through my own stuff and it’s hard enough trying to fix my own issues let alone everyone else’s when everyone is unique and has different things they are going through,” Feds president Danielle Burt said. The Feds mental health committee was tasked with creating a campus mental wellness policy. Burt said the policy was meant to be inclusive, meaning not just for those suffering from mental illness, but for all students.
Now the committee is focused on writing a funding proposal for the provincial government’s Mental Health Innovation Fund. In the few years since the fund’s inception, UW applied and was denied once and last year didn’t apply at all. Burt said that is unacceptable.
“The first step is awareness,” Burt said.
She’s right: awareness is key with any and all health issues.
“I don’t think that we can fix these things if we’re not talking about them, if they’re not out in the open,” Hashman said.
The culture at UW glorifies working yourself to the bone. As a student, I’ve often felt that if I got more than three hours of sleep in a night I was somehow a failure. If I wasn’t making the dean’s list every term, then I was a bad student. For some, depending on their post-grad plans, grades matter a lot. For me, they don’t — and the day I realized that the effort I put in as a student was good enough was when I really started to recover.
Instead of gloating about how many all-nighters we pull each term or how we juggle six courses or how you spend 14 hours on campus each day, let’s gloat about having balanced lives and being happy.
“[We’re told] that if you’re taking a reduced course load or your marks are lower than the average then you are lesser,” Hashman said of her own experience in the math faculty. Her hopes of remaining in UW’s pure math program ended when she decided the high intensity academic and time demands were not worth the deterioration of her mental health.
“You don’t have to sacrifice your curriculum if you pace it better. You don’t have to sacrifice the quality of your students if you let them take more time. This is not a matter of quality; this is a matter of upholding the amphetamine-fueled, hundred-hour week lifestyle of the mathematician that is not sustainable,” Hashman said of the culture of intensity that exists at UW.
I will graduate this year with no academic honours, but I’ve been a part of the campus community, and to me, my impact through Imprint is more a sign of success than a certificate. Taking three courses instead of five has not made me a lesser student; asking for an extension when my depression was at its worst is nothing to be ashamed about. Instead of gloating about how many all-nighters we pull each term or how we juggle six courses or how you spend 14 hours on campus each day, let’s gloat about having balanced lives and being happy.
When I talk to my friends who are stressing about their thesis, finals and impending convocation, I realize that I feel oddly zen despite having a day planner filled to the brim with tasks for the next few weeks. I feel confident that I can finish the essays and exams and figure out the next stage of my life because I almost didn’t make it here. I’ve been stuck in mental states that were so much more awful than the stress of an exam. An exam won’t tell me that everyone I love most doesn’t love me back. Assignments will never say I am worthless. And my thesis is not going to tell me to give up.
My depression has taken me to some very dark places and I’m sure anyone reading this who has experienced mental health issues can relate. Even the average person without depression or anxiety has experienced dark times: no one is completely immune.
But depression is different from a bad day. For a long time, I blamed my bad feelings on circumstances. On school stress, homesickness, breakups, fights with friends: anything that would make me feel like it was “normal” to feel that way. But I’m now fully aware that none of it was “normal” and no one should ever feel like losing all interest in their day-to-day activities, struggling to leave their bed even though they can never really sleep, making excuses to get out of every social engagement, or carrying around a rusty blade so they can retreat to a bathroom stall to make tiny cuts when they feel overwhelmed.
I can’t make the wait times at Counselling and Health Services any shorter. I can’t make professors more understanding. I can’t tell you how to communicate your mental illness to your friends and family. What I can do is share my own story as a student with depression and believe that it gives at least one person a bit more hope.
This time last year, I genuinely believed at times I may never “get better,” whatever that even means. I thought I would be, not sad, but empty and emotionally exhausted for the rest of my life. I am in no way cured, but I’m slowly recovering from a long struggle, and as difficult as it was, I don’t think I would trade it for anything. Through the struggle, through the work I put in to get better and especially through talking to my counsellor and doctor, I have gained a self-awareness that has changed my life.
I understand myself in a way that has helped improve every aspect of my life. I didn’t think I had to get to know myself. I am me, I should know me better than anyone, right? It turns out there was a lot about myself I did not know. I did not know that I have a pretty severe fear of rejection and abandonment, which sometimes makes me a pretty terrible friend. And when I would be in a dark place and ignore, or worse, lash out at my friends and family, I would then become heartbroken when they didn’t go out of their way to include me.
When I first got settled with my counsellor, and still now, she talked about tools. Our sessions were used to create and maintain the tools I had to deal with my depression. The problem was that even when I had the tools, once I was in a bad place I couldn’t access them. It was like I was in a cage and my toolbox was just beyond reach. I could see them, I knew what they were, I just couldn’t reach them.
My recovery has been slow and painful. I don’t share a lot about my struggle for the same reasons most people don’t. I’m afraid people won’t understand and I’m afraid to be defined by my depression.
Everyone has their opinions to share, that medication is not the answer and if you just make changes in your life it will get better. Quit your job, take time off school, stop watching so much TV, call your friends more, exercise, find a hobby: I’ve been told all of this and more by people who had no understanding of what I was going through.
Ultimately, there is not one right answer or treatment that will help everyone. There was a time when I thought I could go for one counselling appointment and immediately be cured, but that is just not how it works. The process has been slow but sustainable, and now that I can reach the toolbox, I am so grateful that I was able to hold on through the worst moments.
“People aren’t defined by their mental illness,” Wong said. There is help available, on-campus and off, but help being available does not always mean it is being accessed by those who need it most. I spent a long time thinking that my problems were not bad enough for me to seek help, and that was not true.
I’ve struggled a lot with how to end this story. Most articles about mental health end with a list of resources and the assurance that help is out there and people will understand, but I know from experience that those words likely do little to reassure someone who is suffering. The truth is, I don’t have an answer or magical cure-all for depression — nobody does. All I can do is share my experience in hopes that it will encourage others to hold on in waiting rooms and keep the conversation going.
Cover design by Madzia McCutcheon. Web layout by Gabriela Grant and Andrew Koo.