The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Lecturer shares experience of mental illness

ANNMARIE LOESSBERG | Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Julie K. Hersh, Notre Dame alumna of ’82, spoke to members of the Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame and South Bend communities about Mental Health Awareness on Tuesday at 8 p.m. in the Jordan Auditorium of the Mendoza College of Business as a part of the “Support a Belle, Love a Belle” and “Irish State of Mind” Mental Health Awareness campaigns on both campuses.  

Hersh said her lecture was dedicated to the son of a friend, Austen Frazier, who committed suicide on Oct. 7, 2009 while dealing with bipolar disorder. 

Hersh said based on the way people talk about mental health it doesn’t seem like a relevant problem to most people, but 38,500 people commit suicide each year according to the last Center for Disease Control (CDC) report. She said this is almost as many as the 40,000 people who die annually as a result of breast cancer.

She said the comparable mortality rate is not reflected in the respective levels of awareness of mental illness and breast cancer.

“If you think about the kind of awareness we have with breast cancer, mental illness is kind of lagging terribly behind,” she said.

Hersh said suicide is especially significant among causes of death for young adults.

“For the age group [of]15 to19 suicide is the third highest cause of death, and for people in the 20 to 25 year old bracket it’s actually the second highest,” she said.

The highest cause of death for young adults is unintentional injuries, which claims 120,000 lives each year. Among these 33,000 are caused by car accidents and 30,000 by accidental falls and accidental poisonings, she said. 

Hersh said despite the frequency with which they occur, suicide may not be taken as seriously as it should be because it gets lost among these other causes of death.

“What’s interesting about that number for suicides is that I think there may be room for underestimation of how serious this problem is because there are some other categories that are pretty big,” Hersh said.

Hersh said in 2001 she drove her car into her garage and let it run for 90 minutes. She said she attributes her still being here to good ventilation, and as a result, she was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). 

Hersh said she had a very low valuation of herself at this point in her life.

“I was certain that my life was over, I was certain I had nothing to offer my friends and family, or my community,” she said.

Hersh said her book “Struck By Living” is about her journey from her suicide attempt to understanding why she made the attempt.

“I felt that if I didn’t understand how I got to that spot, I was doomed to repeat the process,” she said. “It takes you form the point of that suicide attempt through to my discovery of why, how the heck did I get to that state.”

Hersh said when she arrived at Notre Dame as a freshman, she was not the type of person that you would say had a mental illness.

“I was like every other freshman at Notre Dame,” Hersh said, “I had been top of my class, I had been very successful. I was energetic, maybe a little sassy. I didn’t look like anything should be wrong with me.” 

Hersh said in December of that year things started to fall apart. She said around this time she underwent a break up and began to doubt she could pursue her dream of becoming a doctor due to a fear of blood. 

She said she talked to her parents about dropping out of school by the following spring, and things did not really turn around until junior year.

She said she also drank in excess, did not exercise, had no awareness of Seasonal Affect Disorder, had no access to psychotherapy or medication and worked two summer jobs.

She said it didn’t occur to her at the time that the difficulties she was having were symptomatic of mental illness.

 “I never related what happened to me as a brain problem,” she said.

Hersh said staying well for her is about maintaining balance in her life and monitoring her depression. She said there are seven signs people can use to recognize mental illness and that she uses to monitor her own depression: insomnia, weight loss due to lack of appetite, isolation, inability to plan, feeling overwhelmed, loss of her sense of humor and a monotone voice.

Hersh said there are also 10 things she uses to maintain balance in her life: sleep, nutrition, exercise, proper medication, brain investment, avoiding romantic relationships that exclude friendships, allowing time for prayer or meditation, finding a mentor, anticipating stress and realizing she is more than her job.

Hersh said she discovered these 10 methods gradually and is still continually developing her techniques. She also said there are life lessons she is re-learning over and over, such as good stress is still stress, alcohol is a depressant, she is an introvert and the power of human touch.

 Mental health is a lifelong task and not something that is ever cured, Hersh said. It can, however, be kept in check when one knows the symptoms and monitors them appropriately.

“I think if [we realize] mental health is something that everyone needs to do, not just those with mental illness, we are going to be better off,” Hersh said.