I recently had an essay published in The Coast. The Coast is an alternative weekly free newspaper here in Halifax which claims a readership of 61,263.
If you are a regular reader here, nothing in this essay is new to you. It is just a short piece about my struggles with depression and how “I almost died because I was too embarrassed to admit how I was feeling.” Same old, same old.
So, if there is nothing new, why am I bringing it up? Because this was just one in a series of recent events which have triggered an itch; an itch to do more.
With this article, as with my previous mental health divulgements, I’ve received a tremendous outpouring of support and positive feedback. I’ve been contacted by friends, past acquaintances, and complete strangers who’ve told me that my story was also their story. Some have decided to be more open about their own mental health, some are going to seek help, and some are just feeling less alone.
Just one person telling me that I have helped them in some way would be worth the anxiety that accompanied the decision to come out of the mental health closet. Don’t get me wrong, I feel better having done so and don’t regret it for a moment, but I’ve had my worries that people now look at me differently (Hey, it’s the crazy lady!) and I fear that my telling of past events has reopened old wounds for my family.
But, as I said, helping just one person would make this worth it. Having the knowledge that I may have helped a number of people makes me wonder how much more can be done. As I wrote about in this post, a friend of mine killed himself the year after my own attempt. I have often wondered if I could have saved him if I had been public about my own struggles.
Over the last few years, as I’ve become more comfortable talking about my own issues, I’ve opened up to people when I suspected they might be having difficulty as well. Just this morning, someone let slip that they have been really down this winter. As soon as I said, “Me too,” their face lit up, their shoulders relaxed and they breathed deeper. In other words, they relaxed. Then we talked openly and honestly.
This brings me back to The Coast. In a recent survey, the majority of its readers were found to be between 18 and 34 years of age. I know that suicide is spread across all age groups, but it is the 2nd leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds – the high-school and university years. These are the people that I want to reach.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I could have done differently in university. Why didn’t I seek out the support that was available to me? I keep coming back to the feeling of being abnormal and alone. That I had a problem I needed to fix by myself, and that I shouldn’t “burden” anyone else with it.
My alma mater, Dalhousie University, has come a long way in terms of recognizing the need for more counselling and crisis intervention but the entire system still depends on the individual student asking for help.
I dream of a system where this burden is shifted. What if all students were required to attend at least three mandatory counselling sessions a year? This would completely eliminate the stigma of “getting help” because they would have to do it, just like all of their peers. Just imagine…
“Hey Dude, you want to grab a beer and check out the ladies?”
“I can’t, I have to go see my counsellor. If I skip it again, I’ll be on academic probation!”
“That sucks! I went to my session last week. Good luck, Bro!”
(This is how the kids today talk, right?)
I know this vision is flawed. Mainly, it is cost and time prohibitive, but perhaps a version of it could be accomplished using a team of trained student counsellors with a referral service to the professionals. Just imagine a university system where everyone would be periodically forced to talk about how they are feeling! I find the idea very exciting.
Would this solve all of the problems? No. I’m sure some cases would still slip through, but a lot would be caught and any life saved would be worth it.
The Coast article was my small attempt to reach out to this demographic, but I want to do more. I want to speak honestly to a high school assembly and tell them how there will be times that they feel lost and lonely even when they are surrounded by friends. I want to sit down with university students and assure them that their crisis is solvable. I want to use humour to break down barriers; to let people know that they are not alone. I want them know it’s okay to need help.
want need to help… any suggestions?
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Interesting idea. I’m not sure about ways to effect change on a large scale, but I think that any time we are honest and open about our own struggles we can help break down barriers and remove the stigma of mental illness. My opinion, at almost 50 years old, is that we ALL struggle. Some more than others perhaps, but the idea of “normal” is just a flawed concept to begin with. The problem is that it’s okay to say you have a physical illness or disease, but admitting to any kind of psychological distress is different. It shouldn’t be. You’re writing and talking about it, and I think that is a very good thing. Maybe it’s enough.
Great point about being “normal”. I do, however, think that more needs to be done. Not only is there a stigma against talking about your mental health, there is a stigma against asking about it. So many people have told me that they knew there was something wrong, that I was struggling, but they didn’t want to ask. I think we need to force the discussions.
Hm… attendance could be mandatory. I had a class like that. You don’t go, you don’t pass. You don’t pass, they won’t let you graduate. And with readings and having to write about specific topics and convey your thoughts on them – then having them reviewed by a counsellor and a psych prof… Plus, opportunities for one on one meetings, might make students feel more comfortable – meeting with a ‘prof’ vs. a clinic appointment?
Given the reality of how many individuals experience/live with some form of mental illness, combined with the ratio of these people to health care professionals, then factor in the present fiscal challenges in government, health care, mental health and education, it might be the only workable option. And a 2 semester mandatory class would be a good way to really present students with resources, discussion, help break down stigma, listen to speakers who have had experience, and get them thinking.
But I know I’m looking at this through an equal lens of trying to provide help, but also help with the maximum resources that could realistically be available. And limited resources is never ideal. Having to balance budgets and healthcare is like being asked on a daily basis to turn straw into gold 😦
If only we could find Rumpelstiltskin!
The idea of mandatory counselling is the ultimate idea. However, it is not likely something that would ever be feasible (from both a fiscal and human resource perspective). The ratio of students to counsellors, the personnel to schedule the appointments, documentation, follow up, etc… the costs would be astronomical. Perhaps the best that could be done would be that students must take a mandatory ‘course’ to graduate – just like I had to take either a math or a foreign language. If I didn’t take it, I wouldn’t get my degree. The course could called something like “Health & Wellness 101” and be taught/facilitated by either a Psych professor and/or counsellor from Dal student services. The groups would not be overly large and there would be scenarios for the students to contemplate, private writings to submit, and the scope of resources discussed. The cost would be woven into student’s overall tuition – as another course. Students would have the option to meet with their professor for individual meetings. It would probably be best as a second year course…It’s not a well-fleshed out idea, but it’s something that could possible be more financial feasible and reach more students by making the course mandatory…
That’s a good idea, but I fear that some students would need more than a one time only course. I would say first years definitely need a “check in” and I worry that a course would be easier to fake your way through. I would have been able to fake healthy for a course. Or just not have gone! 😉
Congratulations on your Coast article, Stephanie! Maybe mandatory group counselling would be good, because it would take away the risk of getting a poor one-on-one counsellor, of which there are many. I had one once in the lowest time of my life that made me feel even worse about myself (if that was possible), as she stared out the window and yawned while I described how depressed I felt!
And perhaps groups would ease some of the financial and time burden. I also have a terrible therapist in my past. He kept wanting me to take “baby steps” through my childhood in my mind. I think he got his degree from watching “What About Bob”.
Interesting that you suggest a mandatory counselling session. I had a professor (also Dal) who had mandatory office hours…in other words, you had to go meet with him and talk about the course or he would fail you. Now, I doubt he would have/could have actually failed someone but it was scary enough to a group of 19 year olds that we all went. Would I have went if it wasn’t required? Probably not. Did it help? Absolutely.
I know it’s not the same thing as personal counselling. But I thought the similarity was enough to mention it.
Glad your article is making waves. A great step forward in reaching your dream.
Not sure about waves… Ripples, perhaps? Your prof was a good one. Maybe if one of mine had done that it would’ve made it hard to hide away.