Universities Need to Change Their Approach to Mental Illness
“Look, we just can’t have the head of our leadership development program talking about how he has a mental illness. It’s just the reality we have to deal with.”
I stared back at the speaker. A leader at a prestigious Canadian university.
“What if that’s the reality I want to help change?” I asked.
“It’s not our job to change reality,” came the reply. “It’s our job to best prepare students for the reality they’re going to face.”
It IS our job to change reality. What is leadership if not identifying things that need changing and taking steps to change them?
And the reality of how universities and colleges approach mental health has to change. They need to do more and not talk more. Awareness weeks and orientation talks matter little if there are 40-80 hours of counselling available per week on a campus of thousands of students, especially since 40% of those students have felt “so hopeless it was difficult to function” in the past 12 months, and 1 out of every 10 has seriously contemplated suicide according to the National College Health Assessment.
1 in 10. For the school at which I used to work, that’s over 7500 students.
If you’re struggling, you’re not alone. I thought I was, and I was wrong. If you’re struggling, it’s not hopeless. I thought it was, and I was wrong.
In the fall of 2007 I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, a disease that causes my brain to alternate unpredictably between two dramatically different states: “hypomania” and clinical depression. I suppose for those who haven’t experienced this cycle, it may seem like this means I swing back and forth between “happy” and “sad”. It’s far more complex than that – happy and sad are to hypomania and depression what Nickelback and Justin Bieber are to The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. It’s more like swinging back and forth between happy and sad if those two emotions were on steroids.
Tipping on the Chair
Hypomania is a state of elevated mood – one that leads to you being tremendously creative, energetic, talkative, and confident. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had benefited from these elevated moods over the years. I could go four or five months at a time on 60 to 90 minutes of sleep a night: earning elite grades, creating innovative projects, and working 80-hour work weeks that were more productive than others could manage in a month.
But it comes with a cost: disorganized and racing thoughts, a high level of anxiety in situations that don’t call for it, and an unhealthy lowering of inhibitions in social and work situations. When hypomanic I took risks I shouldn’t, keep talking when I knew I need to just shut up, ignored social cues, was overwhelmed with more ideas than I could handle, and was driven almost entirely on emotion.
I was out of control. The worst part? When it was happening I was often completely oblivious to that fact.
When it comes to hypomania, perhaps the genius comedian Steven Wright captured it best: “You know when you’re sitting on a chair and you lean back so you’re just on two legs then you lean too far and you almost fall over but at the last second you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time.”
When Your Brain Forgets
And then there’s depression – which is the more common state in Bipolar II Disorder. Depression isn’t sadness. It’s much more than sadness. Depression in an absence – a black hole within you into which you can throw everything that you love, everything that makes you happy, everything that brings you fulfillment in a desperate attempt to fill it and it will just remain empty. Eventually you lack the desire to try anymore.
The truly terrifying thing about mental illness: bipolar disorder, clinical depression, schizophrenia—is that it can make the brain forget its most important job.
The brain is an incredible thing, capable of remarkable feats. But its fundamental purpose, above all others, is to keep us alive: to protect us. That’s why we slam on the brakes without thinking when something runs in front of our cars, it’s why we can’t really poke ourselves in the eye (don’t try that right now).
But for many of us with mental illness, our own brains have decided that we are the enemy.
And so it attacks us.
I can’t explain what it’s like to battle an enemy that knows you better than you know yourself. What it’s like to battle an enemy that knows your biggest weaknesses. That knows exactly what attacks will do the most damage, and that can always be a step ahead of all of your defenses. Most terrifying, it’s an enemy that can deny you the thing you need most in a difficult battle: hope.
To try to keep battling an enemy like that can be so terrifying, so intimidating, so exhausting that it can begin to make sense to not fight any more.
And this was my reality for 30 years, and I did not question it. I assumed it was just the way things were. I told myself that it was a trade-off: I could get the marks and then the jobs other people wanted, I could give speeches that would move people, but the universe took something from me to balance out those gifts–I didn’t get to be happy like others did.
“Obviously you’re ashamed too, right?”
I tell this story because of a conversation I had with one of my students: an extraordinary young woman whose personality underwent a stunning transformation in her final year of university. Once exuberant and positive, her shift to quiet, disengaged and moody was so pronounced I eventually sat down with her to ask if she was alright.
After a long talk, she revealed that the “darkness she was feeling” had eventually sent her to the school’s counselor, whose referral to a doctor had eventually led to a diagnosis of clinical depression, and the suggestion of counseling and medication.
“I have a prescription and an appointment,” she said. “But I can’t use them.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Oh I can’t. My parents would find out!” She exclaimed.
“Why is that a problem?” I asked.
“It would be so embarrassing for them,” she responded, obviously horrified at the thought. “I can’t tell anyone this – I need to be able to get a job!”
This amazing young woman felt that asking for help was weakness.
Hearing that, I did something I had never done before: I told someone my story of mental illness. I told her I had been afraid of the same things: of looking weak, of being an embarrassment, of being unemployable. But I had asked for help, and it had made my life better in innumerable ways.
“I didn’t know any of that,” she said.
“I haven’t told anyone.” I responded.
“So, obviously you’re ashamed too, right?” She said. “Why should I do what you won’t?
The truth of her words were like a punch in the stomach.
“I’ll tell you what,” I finally managed. “If you promise to do what the doctor tells you, I promise that I won’t be ashamed anymore, and I’ll make sure I tell more people what I told you.”
She kept her end of the bargain, and so I’m committed to keeping mine.
My End of The Bargain
In 2007, with the help of incredible friends, I realized that asking for help was not weakness, it was strength. I realized that my fears of looking weak could not be allowed to take my life from me. I sought and received treatment, and over the past ten years have been blessed with extraordinary opportunities to do what I love. I’ve also been blessed with the opportunity and responsibility to share this story in the hopes of letting others know that optimism can and should exist, even in the darkest times of our lives.
Why? Because you have dealt with every single problem you have ever faced. You know how I know? Because you’re still here. So am I. We have dealt with every single problem that we’ve ever faced and we’ve come out the other side. We may not be pleased with how we dealt with it, we may have left some pieces of us behind along the way, and we may carry some scars…but we’ve dealt with them all.
As such, our success rate on surviving and moving forward is 100%.
Every piece of evidence in our past points to the fact that we will have a future – and I choose to recognize that fact, and give myself credit for it. You should too.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve always struggled with the statement: “everything happens for a reason.” I like the sentiment: that given enough time, even things that seem only to hurt us can later provide opportunities for growth, even rewards. However, I think it’s crucial to remember that the time between our pain and that payoff is characterized by our strength, patience, and perseverance.
Strength, patience, and perseverance.
Positive things can grow out of the negative things that happen to us. When our strength, patience, and perseverance take us through the darkest times in our lives and finally provides us with an opportunity for growth and happiness on the other side, we shouldn’t flippantly attribute that opportunity to some “grand plan” over which we have no control. When we do so, we aren’t recognizing our strength, and giving ourselves credit we both deserve and need. We are refusing to plant the seeds that will grow into the roots of optimism– and we don’t treat our previous successes as evidence we’re capable of and likely to achieve future success.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t have faith in whatever higher power you may choose to believe in. Just choose to remember no higher power looked down from the heavens and dissipated your challenges. What it did was give you the strength to do it yourself. It didn’t turn around and take that strength back afterwards.
There is no reason for anything, but there are reasons for everything. I believe optimism is born from letting go of the idea that we are more likely to fail than we are to succeed. You know what I do when I’m worried I can’t make it through something? I challenge myself to provide hard evidence I’ve ever failed to make it through something before. I take out a piece of paper and tell myself I have to write down a specific instance when I simply failed to survive a challenge. Of course the very fact I’m sitting there holding the pen makes that impossible.
If success is marked by surviving the challenges thrown at us, all of us are yet to fail, so why would we assume next time will be different?
Optimism comes from recognizing that having almost broken before does not make it more likely we will break next time.
We are not plastic or glass, where each crack or bend brings an inevitable collapse closer. We are muscle, and when muscle is torn it grows back stronger. It’s important to acknowledge the fact that while resilience is aided by support, love, and friendship, its most important ingredient your own strength.
I’ve come to believe that sometimes the things that bring you closest to breaking are in fact the things that will one day keep you from breaking.
That belief is often tested in my life. I go long periods with my illness under control, only to have my medication become less effective or my disease has progress, and I begin struggling again. I’ve often compared depression to a spiderweb: you can feel it wrapping around you, and you know it’s not actually a part of you, but you can’t find a way to shake it. I know that for the rest of my life, I will sometimes find myself walking through yet another web.
But I remain fiercely optimistic. I have a choice: assume I am capable of overcoming as I did before, or assuming I no longer have that ability. There is no evidence in my past that I will lose, so why would I assume anything but I can do it again?
The Battles You’ve Fought and Won
Never forget the battles that you have fought and won.1
The battles I have already fought have taught me that when the many good things in my life don’t feel like they usually do, it is just an illusion my brain creates.
The battles I have already fought tell me I am capable of ignoring how my brain is telling me to feel about things, and instead remember how much value the things that are happening actually add to my life.
It’s strange to treat happiness as an intellectual exercise instead of something you just “feel”, but one of the real curses of this disease is when it sets its dark side on you, it actually becomes physically impossible to “feel” happy. It’s kind of like those rare individuals who can’t feel pain – if their hand gets put on a hot stove, they have to actually think to themselves, “even though I can’t feel it, that’s hot, and bad for me.” The battles I have already fought have taught me that right now, I have to look at situations and say, “this is good for you, this adds value, and I know you can’t feel it, but you need to respond as if you can, because eventually you will be able to do so again.”
I told a wonderful friend, also battling bipolar, that this was the approach that I was taking. She asked me, “Does it really work? Or are you just really good at wearing a mask?”
It’s the disease that’s the mask. It hides who I really am, not the other way around.
Everything happens for a reason?
Yes, and you’re the reason. You’ve been the reason every time, and the strength that has gotten you this far has not diminished over time, even if it sometimes feels otherwise. Never forget the battles that you have fought and won. They are evidence of your successes in the past, and a case for what you can accomplish in the future.
1 Thank you Aaron Sorkin*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.