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Student Stories of Mental Health Experiences
As our post-secondary institutions continue to face uncertainty regarding provincial mental health funding, University of Calgary undergraduate students are sharing how accessing professional services on campus made a difference in their lives. The daily balancing act a student goes through in juggling academics, jobs, extra-curricular activities, new responsibilities, relationships and the ambiguity of post-graduate life, can be very taxing on a young person’s mind.
The following stories are examples of the courage it takes to seek help and the leadership it takes to speak out to encourage others to seek the help they need from campus resources.
Mental health matters because these stories are real stories; they are your stories.
Electrical Engineering Student
I always felt I was a little more “high strung” than the average person. Things that bothered me didn’t seem to bother others. For a while I convinced myself my stress levels were a little higher than they should be, but nothing I couldn’t handle. I met with a mental health professional for the first time in my in my life after a professor suggested I speak to a counsellor at the SU Wellness Centre about the stress I felt. Multiple sessions later, although I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I felt confident I had learned valuable skills to control it.
After first year my mental health continued to be a battle. By third year I had been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder (MDD). By fourth year I had survived a suicide attempt.
The Wellness Centre provided me with reliable and nurturing help after my attempt. They understood the student experience and used that to aid in my recovery and help me transition back into school.
I am still battling mental health illnesses. But it’s become much easier with the help of my psychiatrist, counsellor, and disability advisor – all at the university.
If weren’t for these services offered, where I attend school, I’m sure I wouldn’t be in the same place I am today – which is, alive.
Psychology & Development Studies Student
My name is Clare Hickie and I am a fourth year student studying psychology and development studies at the University of Calgary.
Throughout my university career I have struggled with depression. As a first year student, I felt constant pressure to do well in my classes and get involved in clubs and activities. Even as I excelled in university, the pressure I experienced as a student began to take its toll, and in second year my mental health deteriorated. After a long conversation with a concerned friend I went to the SU Wellness Center to get help. I started counselling and took the first step in a long journey with mental illness, which eventually resulted in being diagnosed with depression, and starting on a new treatment plan.
Without the services offered through the Wellness Centre and the University of Calgary, my mental health situation today would look very different. The services offered through the Wellness Centre enabled me to take the first step into the mental health system through services tailored to my needs as a student. When I went to get help, I was mentally and physically exhausted – I had already tried to navigate the mental health system on my own, and felt frustrated with the long wait times to hear back and access services from community clinics. As someone in the middle of a depressive episode, trying to navigate the wider mental health system while dealing with school, friends and extracurricular activities was straining, and I quickly fell through the cracks. Being able to access immediate mental health resources on campus with counsellors who empathized with my needs as a student enabled me to take the first step on my mental health journey in a safe and welcoming environment, and launched me on a path to acceptance and wellness.
I have benefitted enormously from the mental health services at the University of Calgary, including its clinical services like counselling, its wellness-oriented programs like Stress-Less week through the Students Union, and the anti-stigma and educational programs through Students Union clubs and programs. Without these programs and services, I undoubtedly would have experienced more severe mental health issues throughout my time as a student.
Women’s Studies Student
During my first year of university I became pretty severely depressed. I went to the Wellness Centre twice and tried to get help. I said I felt depressed and unstable but unfortunately the doctors I saw were not receptive. They saw my mood problems as being hormonal so they put me on birth control to try and stabilize my mood and help me feel better. When that wouldn’t work they would just switch my birth control. After a traumatic event towards the end of my second year, the depression worsened and I became suicidal. In a moment of crisis I decided I would give the Wellness Centre one more try and went to a walk-in appointment. Finally I saw a doctor who recognized how serious my depression was, that it wasn’t just “hormonal”, and that day we began to work together in finding the right combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and therapy. I continue to see this doctor today. She is wonderful and she most definitely saved my life.
Unfortunately mental illness is not something there is a simple cure for. I have been on and off several antidepressants for the past three years, struggling to find one that would work. I have experienced many side effects, such as extreme sweating, chronic fatigue, rapid weight gain, and even hypomanic episodes. When I finally found a medication that didn’t have any extreme side effects and seemed to work for me, it was not covered under my student insurance plan and was costing me $200 a month. Earlier this past year I ran out of money, and consequently the medication that kept me functioning properly. The withdrawals were awful. I couldn’t eat or sleep for three days. My medication was no longer accessible and I was once again struggling to get out of bed. Luckily thanks to my amazing and wonderful doctor, we were able to find a similar medication that was covered by insurance. Without the Wellness Centre on campus I would not be able to afford treatment for my mental illness and I most certainly would not have been able to remain in school. As you can see from my story, the health coverage on campus at the University of Calgary is not perfect, but it is extremely important, and this is most certainly not the time to be cutting off our access to mental health funding. If anything, we should be increasing it.
Women’s Studies & English Student
Originally published on Facebook on January 10, 2016
I wrote this in January and am re-sharing it today in support of the Student Unions’ Mental Health Funding Campaign, which is happening today and tomorrow in the MacHall South Courtyard from 11 AM -2 PM. I encourage you all to come out and show support – as well as tweet on the #ableg hashtag. Yes, there are significant gaps in mental health supports on campus – but they’re the best we’ve got, and we need them in any capacity we can right now. I would not have been able to get through my degree without the Wellness Centre, Accessibility Centre, or the support of faculty who make an effort to understand students who struggle with mental illness. This is just one fraction of my story:
“Hi, this will take you like five minutes to read and also talks about some heavy stuff like self harm and suicide and whatnot, just a head’s up. But as the second semester of school starts tomorrow I felt compelled to write this.
So at this point my university degree has taken me awhile to get through and I occasionally feel like I’m trapped behind bars, holding them tight with both hands and screaming “Let me out!”
Now it’s true, nobody is compelling me to be here, I guess. I could just drop out and leave, go to a different school or just try to find work somewhere.
But graduating university became a ride-or-die issue for me pretty early on. My childhood sob story, which I will briefly summarise, was living in poverty and experiencing all the very fun things that can accompany a household under such financial duress, like various forms of trauma. Not to mention, we dealt with some very toxic ideologies that placed blame for the source of these traumas in all the wrong places, sowing discord and driving mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and individuals of every relation apart.
University, I always thought, would be my ticket “out” of that life.
Little did I realize the effects of these things stay with you, even if you physically remove yourself from that environment and place yourself on a trajectory the more privileged embark on. And no matter how far you get, how many things you achieve, how “successful” you are, this trauma claws at your heels and threatens to pull you under over and over again.
University does this thing where it realigns your self-worth with your GPA, with how long it takes to finish your degree, with how “involved” you are in the community, and a host of other things that are actually really difficult to achieve and sustain for I think a lot of people, but especially those who struggle with mental health issues. University also exacerbates our tendency to compare ourselves to others, which can be more than a little unfair. The idea of making education competitive sounds great, until you realize that everyone has had varying starting points and road blocks or lack thereof that make each path more smooth or difficult, respectively.
So, I wrangle my way into university trying desperately to follow the path that will hopefully help me attain a decent life. But soon I realize that simply getting here isn’t enough – you have to stand out, pad your resume, network, establish a personal brand and a whole lot of other things aside from simply going to classes and doing well.
In addition to that, I am pretty ambitious person who has always had a lot of ideas about how to save the world. So do a lot of people I admire. Saving the world and building our resumes often overlap and compete for the top spot on our list of goals. Sometimes I’m not sure if we’re all working to save the world together or seeing who can save it first.
Last semester, a prof asked me, “Why are you here?” I wish I could just say “For the love of scholarship and academia!” which I truly do value, but I’m not in a position where I can pretend it’s the only factor. I want to learn, I want to be financially independent, I want to save the world – is that too much to ask?
Anyways, what I’m trying to get at here is the pretty intense mental breakdown I had over the fall semester, which was quite dramatic and definitely one for the books. We’re talking 3 AM phone calls to friends, eyeing up various sharp instruments, attempted self-harm – shit I haven’t really pulled since I was a kid.
I hate this part of myself. She is so annoying and really gets in the way of all the shit I need to do. When you know the heights of what you can push for and accomplish, you really, really dislike feeling so powerless and helpless. When school turns into a competition for who can get the longest CV, you can’t really list “Did not attempt to kill myself” as an accomplishment, even though it could very well be your greatest success to date.
I mean, I could have seen it coming. I was making more conscious efforts to take time for myself. The only problem was I was trying to shove self-care into a schedule that was based on me never taking time for myself at all, and thinking it would work out. I pulled a lot of all-nighters. Did you know sleep deprivation is a method of torture? Do you think about how often you feel compelled to torture yourself for your degree? Self-care is difficult to actually execute in an environment where, like stated above, your self worth becomes determined by things like your GPA, your classes, your leadership involvement, etc.
Do you ever think of the violence of the old cliché about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole? University has often been my salvation – but it’s also tried to kill me a few times.
This is not and indictment of the university or their mental health strategies or supports or anything. Having learned from previous experiences, I was self aware enough to start hitting up the Accessibility Centre and Wellness Centre and all those things as soon as I felt like I was starting to fray. They are really lovely people and really helpful, and everything was a little less dire than it could have been without these supports.
However, the bigger picture here is how inaccessible post-secondary education is to those from low-income families, and anyone who struggles with varying forms of mental illness, in a culture where post-secondary education is compulsory for even hoping to attain some level of stable, middle class living.
So where do I go from here? I’m taking significantly fewer classes – that’s a start (never take five, kids, no matter what they say, they’re lying to you, don’t do it). I’m not pressuring myself to graduate by a certain date at the expense of my physical and emotional wellbeing. I’m allowing myself to be okay with making mistakes and not living up to my own ridiculous expectations. I’m allowing myself to exist in periods of transition. And I’m allowing myself to not have everything figured out.”
Law and Society Student
My story with mental health has not been a simple bout of depression and anxiety here and there. Those conditions are valid, very complex and by no stretch easy for one to deal with. However, they are the conditions you see represented in media the most. My mental illnesses are the scary ones. My mental illnesses are a concoction of hallucinations, emotional disregulation, post-traumatic stress, disordered eating, constant suicidal ideation, and struggling to feel okay.
If it wasn’t for the SU Wellness Centre, I would not be alive. It is with this centre that I saw my first of many psychologists, my first psychiatrist, and began the labyrinth that is trying to find the right meds and the right treatment. As someone with mental illness, accessibility is key. If I had to venture off campus to spend hours waiting at a public health clinic every week, I know that I wouldn’t. My condition would deteriorate even more. After 4 years of various treatments, I am only now starting to feel like my life just might not end in suicide. I am finally getting the therapy I need every week, but at a very high cost of $200/hr. That is $800 a month, just to stay alive. The only way I can afford this is with the insurance policies I am so privileged to have. I know most people aren’t so lucky. I am not writing this for sympathy, I just want awareness. Please, understand that mental health is not just a set of buzzwords for good publicity. It is a serious issue that needs a hell of a lot more attention and funding that it is getting.
Social Work Student
Why does mental health funding matter? 1 in 5 Canadians are affected by mental illness at some point in time and for me that happened to be last year. Last November was when I realized something amiss. I had eaten one cookie and experienced an emotional breakdown. Things continued getting worse, my mood was all over the place, I was struggling immensely. I remember having to leave class because I would have random breakdowns/panic attacks and completing assignments proved to be increasingly difficult. In fact, I thought I would not be able to complete my courses and that I would fall behind. I was diagnosed as having a mild eating disorder, and mood disorder which stemmed from my eating disorder. My eating disorder, Orthorexia, which is an obsession with healthy eating, is not currently recognized as a clinical diagnosis in the DSM 5. Lack of knowledge and funding are primarily the reasons for not having support systems in place to support individuals who are experiencing this form of disordered eating. I went to the Wellness Centre and was told to find a psychologist specializing in disordered eating, as they would be more suited to provide the support I needed. The university provides 10 free sessions in the academic career of undergraduates. However, that is not enough for students who are dealing with a mental illness. I had essentially used up all of my free counselling sessions when I got to this stage of my life. Aside from great family, friends and support from my professors, there were no additional services at the university. Although private counselling is an option, it is still extremely expensive and many people do not have the financial capacity to access these resources. For example, even with my parents’ coverage plan, I was only able to cover five sessions. Without the use of the Wellness Centre mental health resources, many people are uninsured and are not able to access these services. Financial obstacles are one of the main contributing factors when it comes to those seeking help. Thus, it is imperative that the university have access to mental health funding to ensure that they can provide more support systems for students struggling with a mental illness.