If the crisis is with me I may likely breakdown. Once I have that out of the way then I’ll do something productive like chat with friends, or change something in my life.
If the crisis is with someone else then I’m probably ready with a list of resources, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen and everything that I should probably do with myself first.
(The Madvocates are mentioned!)
Searching for solid ground
I used to describe them as holes. It’s as if you were walking along one day, alone in a field, minding your own business, and the earth drops out from underneath you. Maybe if you’re mindful enough, aware enough, lucky enough, you can grab onto the crumbling dirt and pull yourself out, even as it disappears beneath you. But most of the time, you drop straight down. It’s hard to tell how long you’ll spend down there – hours or days, sometimes weeks. There, you feel paralyzed by a numbing fear. A terror rocketing up and down your spine. Almost like a claustrophobe who’s suffocating. Or an acrophobic person standing at the edge of a cliff. It’s such an awful feeling that you’d do almost anything to escape it. Even jump.
I spent a significant amount of my undergrad in this kind of stupor. And climbing out of that state was difficult every time. Often, it felt hardly worth the effort. It never occurred to me to ask for help, or that things would be easier if I did.
In many ways, I was lucky. I never attempted suicide. And while I was desperate for any kind of distraction or relief, I never got mixed up in hard drugs. But I’m aware that given a different turn in life, I could have been.
I suggest that Rachel and I go for a walk. I haven’t felt this awkward doing an interview in a long time. It’s a pleasant sunny day, belying the conversation we’re about to have.
Rachel Phan is a fellow second year master of journalism student at Ryerson. We’ve gotten along well over the past year, but I wouldn’t say we were close friends. In class, Phan is bubbly, and sometimes, unexpectedly sarcastic. But you wouldn’t expect her to say, matter-of-factly, “the last time I cut myself I was 21.”
Phan was first diagnosed with depression at 16. She was hospitalized at 17, “my most suicidal period,” she says. Her friends had a hard time understanding what she was going through. They eventually stopped calling and inviting her out.
I ask her what it feels like when she’s depressed.
“I feel hopeless and completely alone. I find it very difficult to get out of bed and do anything. But the worst part about my episodes is my feeling of worthlessness – I feel unworthy and undeserving of love and life. If people show me kindness, it hurts even more because I somehow feel like I don’t deserve that. It’s difficult for my close friends and family because when I get like that, it’s hard to convince me that I am worth something and that it is possible to love. And I cry, a lot.”
Earlier this month, Maclean’s published a special on the mental health epidemic among university youth. Ryerson students are no exception: last year there was a 200 per cent increase in demand for crisis counselling on campus. Crisis, in this case, is defined as being near suicide, having been physically abused, becoming homeless due to safety concerns or being unable to leave your home due to symptoms.
On top of this, demand for regular counselling services at Ryerson has increased 13 to 20 per cent each year, over the last five years. And over 50 per cent of Ryerson students admit to feeling overwhelming anxiety at some point in the last 12 months, according to Su-Ting Teo, director of student health and wellness at Ryerson. Last year, it hit a breaking-point, as mental health services on campus struggled to keep up with rising demand. Wait times ballooned to four months for non-priority cases. Even priority cases could wait two to three weeks just for a first appointment.
“The reality is that we have become, more by necessity, crisis focused,” said Sarah Thompson, clinical co-ordinator at Ryerson’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC). In her position, she is responsible for making sure the counselling services function well.
“We’re well aware of the phenomenal amount of stress students are living with right now. Economic conditions are not good. Students are very worried about job prospects. Some are working and studying full time. Some are supporting family. So the stress is really at a peak in recent years.”
Students may also be more willing than before to come forward and ask for help, which could account for at least part of the increase in demand for services. But, the truth is, “we don’t know why” there’s a surge in demand, Thompson says.
Last year, Thompson’s office applied for extra funding to deal with the overload. She was given a 14 per cent base budget increase, enough to hire two more counsellors. They were able to cut wait times in half, she says.
“Would we welcome more? In a heartbeat. I frankly feel quite lucky that we were given what we were given, in a time when other departments are facing cuts.”
In the meantime, Thompson says she’s stretching resources. Some of the strategies in use include expanding the internship program, encouraging students to use group therapy, using detailed forms to catch under-reporting, and making referrals outside of the Ryerson health community. However, sometimes these approaches can inadvertently create new barriers between vulnerable students and the help they need.
Earlier this year, I faced a number of simultaneous stresses: a family tragedy, a breakup with my girlfriend, and an overload at school. Though I didn’t want to admit it, I was utterly immobilized with anxiety and quickly spiralling downward. Learning from my undergrad, I hesitantly went to ask for help. A kind and apologetic counsellor at Ryerson told me there was a four-month wait for individual therapy, but she could give a list of clinics outside Ryerson. I found a clinic, but I was terrified and nearly didn’t go. For the first time in my life, I also asked my professors for extensions and accommodation based on a mental health concern. It’s taken me a while to get over the idea that asking for this kind of help is not selfish, embarrassing, or even a form of cheating. Five years ago, in undergrad, I just suffered silently, in my hole. Today, I have a support system in place.
Sometimes poor experiences with health-care professionals can add another barrier for students. “I once told my psychiatrist I tried to commit suicide and he dismissed this by telling me that I ‘looked good,’” Phan says. “Our appointments often only lasted for five minutes. If I came to him with a problem, his solution wasn’t to talk to me, but to write a new prescription.”
The meeting is in a windowless office in a corner of a Ryerson building I didn’t know existed. Hosting the meeting is a group called the Madvocates – a group that advocates on behalf of “mad” students, or students dealing with mental health issues. The name is part of a broader attempt to reclaim mental health terms that are seen as derogatory. There are 10 or 11 people, students and faculty, around the table. They speak in the language of an insular community that has been over the same issues year after year. So it takes me a few minutes to realize they are saying not sadism, but “sanism,” to refer to discrimination against students with mental health issues. There is a concern that I do not publish the names of the attendees.
Many are frustrated about how they are misperceived in the Ryerson community. For those whose disability is all but invisible, a commonly heard refrain is, “but you look so normal.” The group of activists says that terms like “crazy, insane, maniac and psycho” are oppressive, and that the stigma can make stepping forward that much more difficult.
So what needs to change?
Besides more funding, the answer seems to involve a better relationship between students with mental health issues, the wider student body and the school administration.
Here’s how the current system works. Say you are a student with a mental health concern that will affect your classes. First, you obtain documentation from a registered practitioner – like a psychiatrist or family doctor. Then, you bring it to Ryerson’s Access Centre. There, you can get a form to submit to professors, asking for things like extensions or help with note-taking. Or, you can reach an agreement with your professors directly. Of course, all of this takes some energy and initiative on the students’ part, which can be difficult in the middle of an emotional struggle.
Most activists I’ve spoken with say this is a vast improvement on how it was before. Policy 159, a measure that aims to make learning more accessible for students with disabilities, including mental health issues, is responsible for some of these positive changes.
Also, students may not be aware of the options available to them. For example, Greenshield, the Ryerson health plan, has $350 of funding to cover mental health-care visits. Some students may be able to access insurance through their parents. Students on OSAP can apply for bursaries.
Emily Wright is a fourth year undergrad student in the early childhood studies program, who has both physical and mental disabilities. While she works through Ryerson’s Access Centre and appreciates that some progress has been made, she says, “I still feel like I have to fight daily to be recognized, to be heard, and most importantly, to get needed accommodations and support.”
Many activists I have spoken with talk about the need for stronger advocacy and the need to start speaking in the language of rights. This was highlighted by the release last week of the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s report on mental health.
“(Ryerson) has picked up on mental health as an important issue; but they’re not looking at it from a rights perspective,” says Elizabeth – who declined to provide her last name. She is from the Mad Students Society. Members say that Ryerson needs to focus on “how to build a positive culture and community space,” and on making existing services more welcoming to students.
In other words, despite improvements, there is still work to be done.
Phan says she’s doing better now. She’s self-managing. Twenty-one, and self-cutting, are years behind her.
“I feel like I can be mostly happy sometimes, but I’m never completely happy. The depression is latent,” Phan says. When an episode occurs, she takes care to manage her environment, doing things like spending time with her family and boyfriend.
“I find that crying – sobbing, actually – helps a lot because it offers the similar, cathartic release that cutting did. I feel successful because I never let the depression completely consume me like it used to.”
When I began my research, Phan volunteered almost immediately to share her story with me.
“Why should I hide an issue that so many people deal with? Some worse than mine. If we all continue to be too scared or too ashamed to share our stories with mental illness, then there will be no progress… that just perpetuates the idea that mental illness is a taboo topic. More people need to talk about it.”
Finally got a hold of an article put out by Maclean’s, a Canadian magazine, about the rise in mental health issues in post secondary students. My university is mentioned, Ryerson, and this article nicely compliments the reasoning as to why The Madvocates are doing what we’re doing at Ryerson.
Why so many of our best and brightest students report feeling hopeless, depressed, even suicidal
I have a great job for the summer! I’m really excited and my team is great!
One problem….I need a vulnerable sector check and the agency is requesting information about my involvement (if any) with the police under the Mental Health Act.
I have no concerns that something will come up because I have never been in contact with the police under the Mental Health Act.
My concerns are strictly principal. I should not have to give the agency access to this information.
This says to me, “we don’t want crazy people working for our agency.”
This says to me that there are some out there who will have this information given to their employer and will possibly be denied the job.
This says to me that I cannot ever go to the police when I am in crisis for fear that I am “arrested” under the Act.
I have asked my partner to please never call the police if I get out of hand. He never has or has never threatened to but I just wanted to make sure that he knew that call could potentially ruin my life, especially since I work with children.
I live across the street from a police station. I’m thinking I should go in and ask them if I can refuse the mental health part of the check and not have my employment compromised. I also want to know under what grounds can someone be apprehended under the Mental Health Act. Does this person have to be wielding a knife or will being in extreme chaos, crying and screaming, simply be enough?
On the form is says (in bold), “The Agency has explained to the applicant how the responsibilities of the position relate to the request…” This was not explained to us. I was going to email the agency and ask how and I may still. I just don’t want to step on any toes. Which is unfair seeming how this request stomps and breaks my toes.
I’m going to talk about this tonight at YO Group and see what other people have to say.
I’m in this article!!!!!!!! (I bolded my name so you know!)
Mental health help lags behind demand
I want to go over my position.
In light of certain crappy events I’ve realized that I may have screwed myself over.
I have been finding my position on mental health has led some to believe that I’m 100% against diagnosis and treatment which is leading my struggles to be minimized and people being very confused.
So for the record:
I believe people experience at times severe emotional and psychological issues. I really don’t like thinking about it as an illness because I don’t want to be sick but I understand the term and what it does for people, what it has done for me.
I know that I have experienced emotions that were almost the death of me and there is something wrong with that. I don’t want to be feeling things to the extreme that I don’t care about my life anymore because I’m in that much pain.
Overall I guess you could say that I believe in the severity but I’m very skeptical and critical of the frequency and types of “illnesses”.
So how did all of this screw me over? Because when I need help I don’t always get it. My views have downplayed my horrible moments which as of late are getting more frequent and more severe. I am doing my best to continue using the skills I have picked up over the years but I guess I’m just going into a phase where things might be a bit harder.
All I keep hearing though is, “don’t worry it will leave.” Thanks, I know but if I’m in a moment of desperation I can’t think about how it will go away like I could do right now. When I reach for help during these moments by being very upfront, in an attempt to explain that this is a serious issue, I am accused of manipulation (a disgusting stereotype).
I have something to say about this whole manipulation idea, aside from fuck you. If you think I’m telling you I want to cut, or I do cut, feel like dying, want to die, want to go to the hospital etc because I want your attention, THAT IS STILL A PROBLEM!!! If I feel I need to create extreme situations then I’m clearly feeling something that needs to be addressed. Causing the actual damage isn’t the only sign of a problem!
I have better things to do than manipulate people. Trying to keep myself alive and functioning during a rough patch is higher on my list. I need help sometimes too and I need good people around me to help with that.
Regardless of whether I want to say I have an illness I will say that I experience extreme emotions that can be very harmful and destructive. I can’t escape this fact. This shouldn’t mean that I have an illness but it definitively SHOULD NEVER MEAN THAT I DO NOT GET SUPPORT!
I had a thought just now.
I’ve been floating in and out of random feelings that I have basically been keeping to myself. I have been thinking about why I don’t talk about like I usually do and it’s a very simple answer. I just don’t want to.
My not wanting to talk about the horrible things in my head has nothing to do with stigma, a fear that I will judged, made fun of or anything negative like that. I just don’t want to talk about it.
When I went was putting on the waiting list at Planned Parenthood Toronto I was given a list of organizations that I could call if I ever went into crisis. I realized, as I had a moment last week of “crisis”, that I would never use these numbers. As I said to a friend, “I’m content with falling apart.” And I don’t like calling places I don’t know! I prefer face to face contact.
In the past I have had to be pushed to pursue treatment meaning someone had to set it up for me or had to drive me there. It actually never occurred to me that I would be judged based on my mental health status when seeking treatment. I didn’t realize I was experiencing stigma until I was much older. I just didn’t want to go. I wanted to be left alone. Read the rest of this entry