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Students share experiences with mental illness

| Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a five-day series discussing mental health at Notre Dame in recognition of Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Ten students shared stories of the impact mental illness has had on their lives Tuesday night in the LaFortune Student Center Ballroom. “In Our Own Words” was part of the programming for Mental Illness Awareness Week 2015, sponsored by the Notre Dame chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-ND).

WEB 20151006, 10062015, In our Own Words, Irish State of Mind Lecture, LaFortune Ballroom, Mental Health, Sarah Olson-2Chris Collins | The Observer
Sophomore Neil Lewis speaks at “In Our Own Words” in the LaFortune Student Center Ballroom as part of Mental Health Awareness Week.

Senior Haley Hoyle reflected on her brother’s struggle with depression and his suicide in May.

“My brother never graduated. He never got his degree. He never even came close to living a joyful life. He never got a good job; he was never able to follow his passion for playing guitar. He never got married, never had kids,” she said. “There was a lot my brother was never able to do, and above all, the thing he was not able to do was live past the age of 23.”

Living with mental illness is become increasingly difficult, Hoyle said, because of the seeming lack of physical symptoms

“The stigma associated with mental illness is absolutely disgusting to me. When my brother was still alive, many people were afraid to go near him — they just thought he was crazy,” she said. “Mental illness is a mystery, it is invisible, it is hidden from view, and it is only apparent to those who really have eyes to see.

“So here is my plea to you: Have eyes to see the pain of the mentally ill and work with me to fight the stigma. Let’s work tirelessly together to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness, anxiety, depression and anything else that may lead to suicide. Let’s work together to prevent any more brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles or friends from taking their own lives. Let’s work together so that each person will plan to be here tomorrow, and each person will always believe that there is still hope.”

Sophomore Brendan Coughlan discusses the devastating consequences of mental illness and possible solutions to alleviate the stigma surrounding it at “In Our Own Words” for Mental Illness Awareness Week. Chris Collins | The Observer
Sophomore Brendan Coughlan discusses the devastating consequences of mental illness and possible solutions to alleviate the stigma surrounding it at “In Our Own Words” for Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Senior Desiree San Martin said her depression and anxiety has made typical student life difficult.

“I tried to fit in and be the normal Notre Dame student. I’m involved in extracurriculars, I have a work-study job, I got myself an internship. But my illness kept getting the best of me,” she said. “On the outside, it seemed that I was just plain lazy. My inability to get out of bed some days was seen as being lazy and wanting to sleep.”

San Martin said the Notre Dame community reached out and supported her in her struggles with her illness.

“Multiple professors contacted my rector after I hadn’t been to their classes in three weeks, and all my professors contacted my adviser to express concern. They had all also contacted me, asking what was wrong and where I had been,” she said. “At a larger school, students fall by the wayside all the time.”

San Martin said she has made it a point this year to take advantage of all of the University’s resources in dealing with her mental illness.

“In previous years, I would avoid the Counseling Center because of the stigma behind counseling,” she said.

Sophomore Ally Zimmer, spiritual coordinator for NAMI-ND, said therapy significantly helped her deal with depression after graduating from high school.

“Although it took several weeks before I started seeing improvement, my therapist was great and really helped me sort through my issues. She wasn’t afraid to give me the messages that I needed to hear,” she said. “After about a month and a half of weekly appointments, I finally started to smile again.”

Zimmer said she experienced a second episode of depression after her first semester at Notre Dame but was able to return to campus after winter break and get counseling.

“Slowly but surely, I once again crawled out from the hole that is mental illness,” she said. “Now I’m healthy, my self-worth is where is should be, and I am as much as a goofball as I ever was.”

Although mental illness is often treated as the “elephant in the room,” Zimmer said, taking ownership of her depression has been important to her.

“That elephant doesn’t have to be hidden, and it doesn’t have to be an elephant at all,” she said.

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About Catherine Owers

Senior News Writer Catherine Owers is a senior from New Orleans, Louisiana. She is studying English and Theology.

Contact Catherine