Personal Experiences Reveal Limits of Understanding of Mental Illness

Caitlin Plefka PO ’13 was first diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder at age eight, and has been struggling with depression ever since.

“The first thing my mother told me when I saw a therapist was that I shouldn’t tell my friends because they wouldn’t understand,” Plefka said. “It kind of makes sense, especially when you’re talking to eight-year-olds. They’re not going to understand what depression is. But that stuck with me for a long time and made me feel that going to therapy and being depressed was something I had to be ashamed of.”

Plefka continued to notice and struggle with the stigma of mental health issues at college and co-founded the 5C club Let’s DO Something to confront misconceptions and taboos.

“There’s an idea that it’s a shameful secret, that there’s something about you that’s wrong or weak, or that people will reject you if they find out,” said Claire Laubacher PO ’13, another co-founder of the club.

Plefka and Laubacher both believe that creating venues to have honest discussions about mental health on campus will raise awareness about the prevalence of various illnesses.

A 2009 nationwide survey of college students conducted by the American College Health Association found that 30 percent of students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some point in the previous year. Yet, Plefka said, mental illness is largely treated as a distant phenomenon on campus. When she told a friend about her neuroscience thesis, which will measure levels of stigma, the friend responded, “You’d have to find people with mental illnesses, and that would be pretty hard.”

“When you say ‘mental illness,’ people immediately think of a homeless, schizophrenic person you meet in the street,” Laubacher said. “I don’t think they necessarily think about mild to moderate mental illness.”

Laubacher, who suffers from anxiety and depression, said that the rigorous atmosphere at the 5Cs can make it harder for students who are struggling with mental illness to get support.

“When you’re in a high-achieving environment it becomes difficult to say, ‘I can’t do this on my own, I need help,’” Laubacher said. “If I’m not on my antidepressants, things go south pretty quickly. It’s really hard to accept as a high-achieving person that I’m not in control of that part of myself.”

Plefka said she had been planning to apply for graduate fellowships earlier in the semester, but was so depressed during the month the applications were due that she could rarely get out of bed, and didn’t end up turning any in.

“You can’t just get over depression,” she said. “It’s a problem with brain chemistry and not something I can deal with on my own.”

“The reality is a lot of us are dealing with stress, and probably a lot of it isn’t a mental illness,” said Louie Lemus-Mogrovejo PO ’15. “But I remember reading something with the phrase ‘pathologizing life’ and I thought that was very accurate to what happens in a college setting. People are expected to do so much that any level of strain or stress is either supposed to be there, or it’s treated as ‘What’s going on? I should be capable because I’ve done so much before.’”

Lemus-Mogrovejo struggles with depression and had a particularly difficult week last spring that culminated in serious contemplation of suicide.

“One weekend the only time I would actually fall asleep would be when I physically passed out on my bed,” she said.

When Lemus-Mogrovejo contacted deans and asked professors for extensions, she found them to be receptive. She said, however, that she has not been entirely satisfied with the services available on campus.

“The fact that it had to get to a more crisis-like situation worried me in that it seems to follow a trend of more remediation than mitigation,” she said. “If there are resources on campus—and I won’t say there aren’t—they’re in serious need of revision or reform. At the very least, sponsor groups need more training. And where all the pieces of identity—race, class, sexuality—intersect with mental health, that needs to be focused on.”

Robin Brody PZ ’15, the president of the 5C mental health awareness club Active Minds, said that there are valuable resources on campus, but that they they largely go unused because of stigma and a lack of awareness.

“It takes a lot to recognize that you need that support, and I think that’s why they’re not utilized to the full extent they could be,” Brody said. “I think a lot of people think they need to meet some diagnostic criteria, but every single 5C student gets eight counseling sessions a year.”

Brody said that first-year orientation programs should include more direct discussion of college students’ vulnerability to mental health issues, and information about campus resources. Though alcohol abuse is covered in depth during orientation, there is little acknowledgement of the connection between substance abuse and mental health, she said.

Lemus-Mogrovejo said that the framing of mental illness as a dichotomy is counterproductive and discourages students from seeking help. Such a framework implies that “either you’re completely capable and completely free of any mental illness and strain, or you’re completely submerged in pain and unhappiness and you can’t function,” she said.

Laubacher said the stigma is often perpetuated on campus through offhanded comments like “I’m having such an OCD moment!” or “My computer is acting so bipolar!” that minimize the suffering of people with mental illnesses.

She said that educating her peers about mental health is difficult because she has to strike a balance between telling people that being depressed is not so distant from feeling sad and explaining that “depression is real suffering and that there are elements you don’t go through when you’re just sad.”

Lemus-Mogrovejo said she does not fault people for failing to understand or recognize what she is experiencing, and that open discussion and crisis training among student leaders is crucial.

“If you don’t have an experience, it’s much harder to grasp it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not easy to understand.”

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