Mental illness: A new normal

Erica Chamberlain never considered herself that different from anyone else her age, nor did she think others saw her differently.

That was until a friend of hers referred to people with mental illness as “people like that.” She suddenly felt abnormal and estranged.

“It just totally boggled my mind that she could classify everyone with a mental illness as ‘people like that,’” said Chamberlain, a fourth-year human rights and history student at St. Thomas University.

“That really bothered me.”

The 23-year-old has suffered from depression for seven years.

She says she’s done everything “right” to treat it – including medication and counselling – there’s no easy fix. She can’t just wake up happy, like some of her friends suggest.

“When I was at Mount A. [my first year in university], I slept through an entire semester,” Chamberlain said.

But Chamberlain is more normal than she – and maybe her friend – thinks.

Mental illnesses, including depression, are most prevalent among people 15 to 24 years old, which includes the demographic of most university students.

Statistics Canada estimates that 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder, “the single most disabling group of disorders worldwide.”

And according to Rice Fuller, a psychologist and director of UNB Counselling, the number of young adults with mental illness has increased by “leaps and bounds” within the past 10 years.

“It’s becoming very clear that just adding more counsellors isn’t going to do the trick,” Fuller said.

“We need to be looking at policies and procedures at universities and make them as health-promoting as possible.”

Depression occurs when someone has been in a downer depressed mood nearly every day for at least two weeks straight, says Fuller.

People who suffer from depression also lose interest in nearly all activities, including the ones they love, most of the day, every day.

It can not only affect a person’s mood or sleep pattern, but affect his or her appetite, weight and physical health.

For Chamberlain, it’s been frustrating and unsettling.

“I don’t know if ‘debilitating’ is the right word, but it just totally takes over you,” said Chamberlain.

“You can’t control your emotions…like, I’ve had to leave class just because I’ll cry out of nowhere.

“I just don’t feel in control. The depression controls me. Sadness is normal, but to this extent it doesn’t seem normal.”

Fuller says not only are stress rates, often a trigger for mental illness, higher than they used to be, but there is a “lack of connection” within communities.

“Participation in community activities…has declined steadily [since the 1960s],” Fuller said.

And Fuller says despite the common “community feel” of university life, it’s often the prime time for young adults to bottle up and try to cope with new pressures and stresses, like moving away from home.

Compared to university, even high school seems like a cocoon, Fuller said.

University definitely doesn’t make it easier for Chamberlain.

Along with depression, she also has social phobia or social anxiety disorder, something that makes her fear scrutiny and judgement from other people whenever she’s in a social setting, including class.

“It’s an everyday thing – especially when I’m at school,” Chamberlain said of her depression and social phobia.

“The motivation is really hard because you don’t feel motivated to go to class and there’s a lot of inadequacy issues that come along…I go to class and I don’t feel up to par.”

And Chamberlain continues to feel like people will look at her differently if she tells them she is depressed, something that almost held her back from doing this article if her name had to be published.

“[Mental illness] labels people and people get caught up that label,” Fuller said.

According to Fuller, UNB Counselling and its seven counsellors this semester see about 25 clients a day. Last year there were 4,000 visits.

He says about 20 per cent come for depression issues, another 20 per cent come for anxiety issues, another 20 per cent for relationship problems and about 16 per cent for academic problems.

And while the services’ three trained counsellors and four trained psychologists don’t diagnose clients, they are there to talk, for active problem-solving and for basic psychotherapy.

About 22 per cent of the people who use UNB Counselling are STU students.

Chamberlain sought out counselling services when she first transferred to STU. She calls the clinic “ridiculously awesome” and encourages anyone to take advantage of the free service.

“The doctor…really understands,” Chamberlain said.

“I’ve done [counselling] a million and one times and it’s really just a personal thing to find that one person you can connect with and that’s really hard when there’s not a million different options for counsellors.

“It’s just important to let [people] know there are options for them and that it’s not going to be an easy fix. Because you know, going into it…I think I thought it was going to be easier than it turned out to be.”

Fuller says the real difference comes from support within the university administration and the peer community, including anti-stigma groups led by students with mental illnesses.

And Chamberlain just hopes that her speaking out will encourage others with mental illness to speak up as well. Then maybe more people can understand that it’s not as simple as it seems.

“It’s not something that you look at somebody and you know,” Chamberlain said.

“The more people that talk about it, the more people…can put a face to it and be like, she’s just like everybody else.

“I think that’s what we need.”

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  • Show Comments (1)

  • Sharon Fawcett

    Thank you, Alyssa, for writing this article and to you as well, Erica, for bravely sharing your story. Though mental illness remains in the shadows, even on our "liberal" university campus, you've both shone a huge beam of light to those experiencing it in secret.

    I'm proud of you.

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