Sharing stories of struggle

(Left to right): The panelists: Devin Donegani, Renee Comeau, Brianna Matchett, Roxanne Morin, Jan Wong and Diana MacLean (Nathan DeLong/AQ)
(Left to right): The panelists: Devin Donegani, Renee Comeau, Brianna Matchett, Roxanne Morin, Jan Wong and Diana MacLean (Nathan DeLong/AQ)

Devin Donegani was six years old when he first had a panic attack. The third-year St. Thomas student has been struggling with mental illness for most of his life. He attempted suicide for the first time in December 2010.

“The second attempt came a year later and was triggered by a friend of mine committing suicide,” he said. “In the first attempt, a part of me just didn’t want to die.”

Donegani was one of the six panellists who spoke at the first annual We Are Not Alone Mental Health Awarenss Day at St. Thomas on Thursday. Other students spoke about their own experiences as well as faculty and professionals.

Donegani told the room of about twenty people about living his life with mental illness. After collapsing in his mother’s bedroom, he spent the next 14 days in the child psychiatry ward at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax after his first suicide attempt. He began seeing a counsellor at 11, and hasn’t stopped.

“As I’ve gotten older, things have changed,” he said. “I’ve found people who have endured something similar. I’ve made friends, and the ones I had who saw this happen have never been closer to me.”

STU positive mental health champion Lindsay Gallagher said the purpose of this panel is to tell students they are not alone in their fears and struggles.

“Others experience that as well, and we understand that,” she said.

Also on the panel, third-year student Renée Comeau said she started to struggle with mental illness a little later in life.

Comeau was diagnosed with generalized anxiety after returning from a volunteer trip in 2011 and depriving herself of food while working out for three hours a day.

“I lost an unhealthy amount of weight,” she said.

Comeau entered a depressive phase after her first year of university. Her specialist prescribed a non-addictive medication.

She began to be open about her struggles after enduring a rough phase where she felt alone.

STU journalism professor Jan Wong’s battle with depression began as an adult.

“I was healthy and knew nothing about it, even as a journalist,” she told the audience. “It was triggered by a story I wrote for the Globe and Mail after which I got a racist backlash.”

She said her employer didn’t believe she was ill and was fired when she couldn’t return to work.

“I wrote a book about it because it’s important to raise awareness of an illness that affects one in five people and more women than men.”

Gallagher felt it was courageous for the panelists to share their stories.

“I’m really proud and hopeful for them,” she said. “I wish the crowd was bigger, but I hope the message for those who were here was that they’re not alone and there are others enduring the same thing.”

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