Mental illness on campus prevalent but isolating

by Andy Stoiber

“I did a gram of coke, several Adderal, multiple packs of cigarettes, bags of weed and bottles of booze… I ended up writing 3 nearly perfect papers…I didn’t procrastinate on these, and without the drugs I doubt I would have gotten it all done at the quality it was at.”

David, whose name has been changed for anonymity, messaged me the above after I posted to Facebook that I was looking to write about mental illness on the University of Wisconsin campus.

“I have an arsenal of substances at the ready to control my mood and motivation and feel like I cannot function without them,” he said.”Drugs could keep me up long enough to write a perfect paper, drugs could put me to sleep when I couldn’t, they could help me eat when I didn’t want to, they made me feel good when everything was shitty… school has ruined me.”

Students participate in a mindfulness meditation class. (UW Photo Library)

Christine, who suffered from bipolar disorder, said meditation classes saved her. (UW Photo Library)

This “school has ruined me” rhetoric is largely what drew my interest to mental illness on campus.  Since I’ve been in college, mental illness has become a more present part of everyday life. The National Epidemiological Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions found that nearly half of people between the ages of 19 and 25 had a psychiatric disorder in the year prior to the study. How does struggling with a mental illness alter one’s college experience?

“When I’m sad for a normal reason, that’s good, that’s a regular, healthy response,” Rachel, a senior at UW, said “But when I’m a sophomore here, sitting in my $900-apartment which my parents pay for and I have great friends and a boyfriend that loves me and majoring in things I’m totally engaged in and I can’t get out of bed, that doesn’t make sense.  That is the worst part. The overwhelming guilt. Because it makes you think, ‘What is wrong with me?’ You know? I’m sitting here, my life is charmed, I should be so happy.”

Rachel has bipolar disorder. “The kicker,” she said, “is that bipolar disorder runs in families. My mother has it, my grandma has it.”

Rachel wasn’t diagnosed until her sophomore year in college when she found herself unable to get out of bed. After a successful freshman year in college, Rachel’s sophomore GPA dropped to 1.8. Her roommate, who lived with her both years, said she wasn’t the same person. Rachel agreed.

When asked to define the disorder, she hesitates. “That’s what’s weird about this disorder, it’s cyclical,” she said.“Sometimes you do feel fine, sometimes you’re inconsolably depressed. It runs the gambit. It’s not this constant everyday thing when you feel the same… It’s hard in a moment when I feel like I should be feeling joy and I can’t. Or when I should be getting sleep at four in the morning and I can’t. I haven’t figured this out yet.”

Rachel has been trying to figure it out since she was 12, when she was first put on medication. “I was a small girl taking a lot of drugs,” she said.

She continues to use prescription medication, but it’s clear the pills aren’t a cure. She mentions that it can take several years to find an effective course of treatment.She thinks about adopting instead of having her own kids, fearing a biological child would inherit the same burden three generations of women in her family have already shouldered.

“I don’t know who I’d be without it. I guess you caught me on an off month,” Rachel said. “A couple months ago I would have told you it makes me who I am and I’m a stronger person for it.Lately it feels like it’s been leaching everything that’s good from my life.”

But Rachel is not without hope. She’s tremendously proud to say she is scheduled to graduate in May and is happy with how she scored on the LSAT and is ready to tackle law school.

For another UW student, life after graduation proved to be escape from anxiety and depression.

“When I was in high school I used to joke about how someday I was probably going to end up with an anxiety disorder since I was stressed all the time,” Christine, who now lives overseas, told me via Facebook.  “Hindsight is 20/20 I suppose.”

Having nearly no experience with drinking prior to college, Christine had a panic attack after drinking at a party. “I tried to make myself throw up, desperate to relieve the nausea, and I didn’t fall asleep until around six that morning because I couldn’t stop shaking from anxiety.”

After that, she became more and more anxious. She lost her appetite, skipped meals and dissolved to tears during lunches with friends. Afraid of being overbearing, she distanced herself from her best friend and eventually started hurting herself.

“My grades and class participation began to suffer. I would tear up when talking to TAs out of nerves, and I became so embarrassed that I stopped seeking extra help in class if I didn’t understand a concept,” she said.

In Christine’s sophomore year, her anxiety waned, but the worst was to come.

“Around October, I decided to end my long distance relationship. It was a difficult decision, and the backlash was fierce, and it was exactly what was needed to fully transition to having depression,” she said. “What they say about having anxiety and depression at the same time is extremely true. You care desperately about everything while simultaneously not giving a shit.” Specifically, Christine would resolve to not do an assignment, and then spend the night ruminating on it. Her GPA fell from a 3.5 to a 2.3.

Soon, Christine was suicidal. She sought help from University Health Services and began weekly sessions of traditional therapy and meditation.

“The meditation course literally saved my life. The afternoons after the course ended were free of negative thoughts. I could FEEL things again. I wasn’t just a shell of a human walking around and putting half of my effort into anything. I could talk to my friends. I could laugh and joke. Honestly, I now recommend meditation to everyone I meet.”

By senior year she felt like a new person. She raised her GPA and accepted a job in Asia where she is thriving and free of mental illness.

“My time at UW-Madison was both the best and the worst time of my life. If I could go back, I would seek help earlier. I would go to the McBurney center and see what they could do to help. I would go to UHS immediately during sophomore year, and I would continue the meditation group as long as I could. I would erase from my life those people who saw my mental illness as a burden or as a reason to feel better about themselves, because that is not what someone suffering with an illness should experience. It takes work, but it is essential to have support. Without it, I doubt I would be here today telling you about this.”

Christine and Rachel both expressed their frustration toward the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“There’s this mind/body duality, that the chemistry in my head is different from the lack of insulin in someone’s pancreas,” Rachel said, referencing diabetes and what she sees as a somewhat arbitrary differentiation between mental and physical illnesses.

“It needs to be talked about, and it needs to be treated as serious,” Christine said. “Would I have sought help earlier if it was more widely talked about, rather than just having one person encouraging me to get therapy? I think I would have. I understand it is difficult to approach things like this, but it really is important. People need to know there is help and that it is okay to seek it.”

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