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‘Take it one step at a time’

and | Thursday, October 9, 2014

“It’s so easy to look around a high-pressure environment at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s and think, ‘Everyone here is a rock star and everyone is so smart and has incredible internships and jobs.’ I can’t risk saying I need help with this because then I’ll risk falling behind. I can’t risk not keeping up with the rest of my peers,” Saint Mary’s senior Emily Haskins said.

“People [need to] realize that asking for help is the best thing you can do.”

As Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s celebrate National Mental Health Awareness Week with panel discussions, prayer services and Touchdown Jesus bathed in green light — the color of mental health awareness — the week also offers students with mental illnesses a chance to reflect on their experiences.

‘You don’t know where to draw the line’

Haskins was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) last year after struggling with it throughout high school and college, but had refused to see a doctor. She said it can be difficult to distinguish the stress that naturally goes along with life as a college student from a more serious condition.

“Obviously being in college is stressful,” Haskins said. “Everybody is stressed out, which makes it harder because you don’t know where to draw the line between ‘Am I being a baby about this?’ and making too much of a big deal.

“But I could give myself an entire Saturday afternoon in the library and just look at my assignment and start to have a panic attack, feeling like I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t think and my thoughts would start racing. It wasn’t like I procrastinated or needed to feel that way.”

Notre Dame junior Tracey Cheun, who has been diagnosed with depression, said the college environment can be both therapeutic and detrimental to mental illness.

“College seems to make the condition worse and better,” Cheun said. “Worse because it is Notre Dame, it’s a very esteemed institution, so there’s pressure. But also better because I’ve been lucky enough to have the people around me, and I can’t imagine being where I am today without them, or being this mentally healthy without their encouragement.”

Amber Kearse, a Notre Dame senior, said the pressure to excel in school made coping with her depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) more difficult.

“I’ve had depression before, but it wasn’t diagnosed depression,” Kearse said. “The depression [I had my] freshman year was kind of related to the ADHD. I had sort of been the smart person at my school and I always thought daydreaming was a part of my personality. So when I came here and I was struggling, I couldn’t tell anyone at home because I was so used to being at the top of my class and getting straight A’s.

“It was really stressful and really lonely because I didn’t want to tell anybody, but then I couldn’t really do anything because I wasn’t telling anybody. I didn’t really want to go to counseling because I didn’t want to admit anything was wrong, but then I finally went and talked to someone.”

“Having problems outside of school just makes worrying about school a lot worse,” Kearse said.

 ‘Family dynamic’

Cheun, who lives on campus in Badin Hall,  said the resources on campus, ranging from the University Counseling Center (UCC) to resident hall staffs, make living with mental illness more manageable. 

“The counseling center is a really great resource,” she said. “I think people really underestimate it or they’re kind of afraid that they’ll be perceived as [weak] or that they have huge issues and there’s something wrong with them. They’re really nurturing there.

“I [also] think the family dynamic here is so strong and that helped me get through a lot of it. I know Badin is pretty small, but the hall staff and [rector] Sr. Denise [Lyon] would stop by my room a lot and make sure I was okay.”

After initially fearing medication, Haskins said she came to recognize its potential to assist her after asking God for help.

“My medication helps,” she said. “I didn’t want to take medicine because there’s such a stigma about it. I didn’t want to be dependent on it.

“[But] medicine isn’t a crutch. Doctors have been blessed with far more smarts than I to help people get through it. If anybody out there has an anxiety disorder and hasn’t done anything about it, you honestly deserve medicine, or help if medicine isn’t your thing.”

As a Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) major and business economics minor, Cheun said her professors have also been remarkably accommodating, which has helped her progress as a student and manage her illness. 

“All of [my professors] have been incredibly supportive and understanding, whether it’s paper extensions or me not being able to get out of bed because I’m too depressed and I just can’t do it,” she said. “They’re always willing to go out of their way for me and meet me after or outside their office hours. That’s helped a lot, and definitely piqued my interest in my academic endeavors because I don’t feel so discouraged or judged by them.

“In terms of my everyday life, I take it one step at a time,” Cheun said. “I keep mood charts, I exercise, I take my medication everyday, I follow up with my family on a weekly basis. Sometimes I’ll ask my roommates or my boyfriend to let me know if I’m behaving bizarrely and don’t realize it, because that does happen sometimes.”

 ‘Kind of a quiet thing’ 

In light of Notre Dame graduate Mark Gallogly and his wife Lise Strickler’s $10 million gift to the University to create the Rev. James E. McDonald, C.S.C., Center for Student Well-Being, Kearse said the University should focus on peer support for students with mental illness.

“There was no real obvious peer support,” Kearse said. “There’s counseling, but it’s better to also have something with other students. Once you leave counseling, that’s who you have to deal with and who you compare yourself to. I think it’s better to have a support network that involves the people who you are living with and you go to school with everyday.

“There are a lot of people who experience depression here, but it’s kind of a quiet thing,” Kearse said. “… If people were used to dealing with other people or noticing the signs, they would probably reach out to their friends more or check in on them and try to get outside help if they think the person needs it.”

Cheun said the University could do a better job directing students to off-campus mental health resources, as well as making on-campus support groups more accessible.

“More openness and availability of support groups would help a lot,” she said. 

Saint Mary’s junior Torie Otteson spoke at Tuesday night’s student panel in Rice Commons about her own journey and struggle as a way to break the silence surrounding mental illnesses.

Otteson said students don’t talk about the issue of mental illness because it’s thought to be a private thing.

“People don’t talk about it, but it’s very empowering to share my story of mental illness,” Otteson said. “People listen and they understand. We have a wonderful community here and they realize maybe [mental illness] is not such a scary thing.”

Otteson said she lost a lot of time to mental illness but now she’s taking her story and turning it into something positive for others and for herself.

 “I want to be able to help people realize that you’re not alone and there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, even if you can’t see it right now,” Otteson said.

“[Mental illness] has made me a stronger person in general. If I can made it through that, I can make it through anything.”

Haskins said she has never sought help on campus because she feels it carries a stigma, partly because there is not enough information about student mental health resources.

“I’m a senior and I don’t know how much it costs to take advantage of campus resources or how that gets billed to you,” she said. “I think if people were more aware of that, it would be better.”

Haskins also said students and faculty alike need to make people aware that “[mental illness] is biological and not just something you make up or is a crutch,” something which she said events like Irish State of Mind and Support a Belle, Love a Belle weeks help to do.

‘You’re not a diagnosis’

Saint Mary’s first year student Kendall Smith also spoke on Tuesday night’s student panel about her experience with mental illness.

Smith shared her personal journey of depression that led to self-harm, an eating disorder and substance abuse.

“When something stressful happened, I felt the need to change myself,” Smith said. “I dyed my hair, got piercings and finally recognized, ‘why did I feel the need to change myself?”

Smith realized through her struggles with depression that she needed to prepare herself to deal with different outcomes instead of altering herself. Depression leads to eating disorders, self-harm and substance abuse, she said, but her story is no longer a sad one to tell.

“Depression is a temporary thing if you want it to be,” Smith said. “I’ve spoken about [mental illness] before, but it was a sad story.”

Now her story is one of learning and growth. Smith said she has found passion in telling her story because it’s not another chapter of her life — she’s closing the book on depression.

“It’s a form of closure, to my history of depression and self-harm,” she said. “I’m really proud of myself for living through that and finding myself through it. It’s always been in the back of my mind; I’m hoping that this will be a way for me to say goodbye to that side of myself.”

Smith said people should know that mental illness is something that doesn’t need to be kept to in the dark; it’s something to work through with support.

“They were given it, and it’s something they can work through, not something they have to tolerate,” Smith said. “Mental illness doesn’t mean crazy.

“Mental illness isn’t a race issue, not a class issue, not a gender issue — it’s a human issue,” Smith said.

“You’re not a diagnosis, you’re a person.”

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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About Haleigh Ehmsen

A senior at Saint Mary's, Haleigh is majoring in Communication Studies and English Literature & Writing. She serves as the Saint Mary's editor and enjoys coffee, guacamole and good books.

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