Monday, December 11, 2017

Dark days at Camosun College: Students dealing with depression speak out

September 7, 2016 by Adam Marsh, student editor

It’s a hot summer day at Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus. I’m walking beneath the bridge that connects the Fisher and Ewing buildings, my footsteps echoing amid the summer silence that fills the air. When autumn comes, the bookstore line-up will be visible from across the parking lot; for now, the campus is tranquil. But campuses aren’t always tranquil, and neither are the minds of the students who are attending Camosun.

A faint aroma of iced chai tea floats into the air from my cup as I step off campus. I refill it when I arrive at my destination: a pleasant, air-conditioned downtown coffee shop, where former Camosun Community, Family and Child Studies student Bronwyn Balderson has agreed to meet me.

When she approaches, she smiles. We chat, and, eventually, inevitably, the conversation slides into commonality: student life at Camosun. For Balderson, it was plagued by depression and anxiety; nagging thoughts of self-harm and suicide; a constant sense of darkness and doom.

A typical day for Balderson was dark and often overridden with anxiety. And that’s assuming she was able to get her day started. Now, Balderson wants people to understand that depression among college students is no different from having a serious physical illness. She says it is important to be compassionate with herself and others; to understand that sometimes it is okay to not be okay. But some days while she was at Camosun, she just couldn’t get to class.

“If I was really down, then I wouldn’t want to get out of bed,” she says.

NUMBING THE PAIN

Balderson says that although she has learnt numerous skills through therapy and trial and error, as well as through taking medication, sometimes her mental health still bogs her down and forces a fight to get back up, as it did the day before we met.

“Yesterday I had a really rough day,” she admits. “I was super anxious for no reason. But today I’m good. Yesterday wasn’t good. You kind of have to just remember that every day might be different, which isn’t always easy. Or it might be different every few days or few weeks.”

As we’re talking, I notice the words “so lucky, so strong, so proud” in dark cursive on her left arm, which Balderson says is a reminder to herself to not self-harm.

(Photo by Jill Westby/Nexus.)

(Photo by Jill Westby/Nexus.)

“It was mostly just cutting. That was more of a way to deal with my anxiety when I didn’t really know what anxiety was,” says Balderson, who has been in recovery from self-harm for over a year. “I was pretty young when I started. I attended groups through my counsellor that I got involved with, but it was mostly just cutting. And it was like an addiction for me. Even if I wanted to, I felt like I couldn’t stop. And I made a deal with myself when I was 17 that if I went a year without self-harming, I would get a tattoo,” Balderson says.

After a while of cutting to make sense of anxiety, Balderson says she wouldn’t even really feel herself doing it.

“It was just like a visual, ‘oh, look, I’m not okay’—because in my mind, I was all over the place,” she says. “It went on for quite a long time before I was able to stop.”

Balderson says that having counsellors and other professionals to help her validate and cope with her feelings was invaluable. Just hearing that cutting was an addiction for some people rather than a weakness was a factor in cultivating the acceptance she needed to learn how to better deal with her struggles, says Balderson. But getting to that point didn’t happen overnight.

NOWHERE TO GO

Balderson was hospitalized for two summers, but the first time, she says she didn’t treat her mental health with the focus and diligence it deserved or required.

“The second time I kind of just took it more seriously,” she says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to feel better. I don’t always want to not know how I’m going to be feeling or how to deal with it.’”

Balderson says that going to emergency was a last resort for her that she used in hopes that someone might be able to help her; it was also for her own safety. But trips to emergency don’t always play out as hoped.

“A lot of the time you’ll be there in emergency for a long time, and then you might go over to Eric Martin [Pavillion] and sleep in a chair for a night,” says Balderson, adding that that happened to her.

“There wasn’t enough rooms,” she says with a bit of a laugh. “Going in the hospital was always like a last-ditch, ‘okay, I guess I’ll try and get some help now, but I don’t even want to be here.’ I wanted to die.”

Balderson says that it was so hard to see a psychiatrist without going to the hospital that there were times when people she knew would go to the hospital just to get assessed.

“It’s really shitty that that’s the way it is right now,” she says. “There just should be more services involved. I know that Justin Trudeau, for Mental Health Week, said he’s really going to try harder for more mental-health services, because there’s just not enough.”

Balderson says there is nothing more scary and heartbreaking than “being down and feeling out of control” and knowing the resources aren’t there. But even if they are, the trouble with being really low and depressed, she says, is that you stop caring enough to fight it. Even through her lowest times, hearing the words “are you okay?” sometimes went a long way.

(Photo by Jill Westby/Nexus.)

(Photo by Jill Westby/Nexus.)

“Just go easy on people,” she says. “You never really know people’s story. A lot of people don’t talk about mental illness even if they have it because they’re ashamed or whatever, or the stigma is still a super big deal. I would just say everybody’s different. Go easy on them. You might think they’re just blowing you off, but they could be struggling with other things. Lend a helping hand. Ask them if they are okay, rather than getting mad.”

And it’s an ongoing struggle: Balderson acknowledges that some aspects of our conversation—even though time has gone by and she has stabilized enough to fight it—are still a little bit triggering.

“There was definitely a few times where I was suicidal,” she says. “And one time that I was really contemplating it, which is why I was in the hospital.”

Balderson has come a long way since those days, but not without a lot of help and hard work. Today, she talks about suicide in an honest and frank fashion.

“People would say it’s such a selfish thing to do,” she says. “And it’s not like I wouldn’t feel bad even thinking about it. You want to care about what would happen if you weren’t around, but you just don’t in those really low moods. You’re just so consumed by this low feeling that you don’t care.”

Balderson says that while she attended Camosun, she sought help elsewhere, but she says she has many friends who found solace in the Camosun counselling department.

ON-CAMPUS HELP

Over in the counselling department at Camosun’s Lansdowne campus, counsellor Chris Balmer says that rates of documented cases of depression and anxiety are rising. Balmer says that stimuli are increasing as a result of modernization, which, for psychologically fragile individuals, can sometimes be too much.

“It’s more difficult to manage multiple stimuli for people whose resiliency is not strong,” says Balmer, “and the expectation to manage more and more things has steadily grown. I think that we haven’t really addressed the need to learn how to manage and multitask all of those bits of information and challenges.”

Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) external executive Rachael Grant says that the CCSS feels that depression and anxiety at Camosun is a big issue. The catch, according to Grant, is that students deal with many stressors that the rest of the community doesn’t necessarily have to, such as loans and tuition.

“When you bring in all the factors that students have to navigate, it definitely can compound mental-health issues,” says Grant, who adds that the cost of living combined with paying tuition or loans “will impact your mental health in a very negative way.”

Balmer says that numerous resources are available in Victoria, both on campus and off. He says that here on campus, Camosun offers ways to help students deal with their struggles.

“On an individual counselling basis, we provide education and strategies to organize, to be able to emotionally regulate oneself, to become more aware of what’s going on,” he says, “and how to cope with emotional reactions to things and still make informed choices, and just understand how to be a good manager of your own life and lifestyle.”

Balmer says that the real catch is gaining the skills, support, and self-understanding to recognize when you might not be able to make those informed choices alone. Dealing with someone who has mental-health challenges is never easy, but neither is being the one with the disharmony and pain, says Balmer.

“Be open, non-judgmental, more flexible, and compassionate in realizing that many students are dealing with multiple challenges,” he says. He adds that the role of other students and faculty can be essential in helping a student who is having a difficult time.

“Fellow students and employees really can open their awareness and heighten their understanding of signs and symptoms of distress in students, and be interested and learn simple ways of having helpful conversations and providing support in other ways.”

Grant says that if anyone were interested in starting a group around mental health, the Camosun student society would be happy to help get it started.

“We’re looking at having a club that’s focused on mental illness,” she says. “It’s something that we’re looking at developing more services around. There is definitely the need.”

NOT JUST A STUDENT ISSUE

Camosun nursing instructor Allison McLeod—who said in our August 10, 2016 issue that mental health has always been integrated into her lessons in the Nursing program—says she has genetic predispositions to a group of illnesses known as “leaky brakes,” of which anxiety can be a part. McLeod went through most of her adult life without a diagnosis, and she says that when she was diagnosed a couple of years ago it was “very validating.” For her, the diagnosis was ADHD, but she says that mental health “does not come in nice, neat little packages,” which is where the anxiety and a plethora of other overwhelming emotions can come crashing in.

“I have difficulty focusing on a conversation if it’s a busy, crowded, noisy room,” says McLeod, “which makes me anxious, so it’s hard to worry about whether I just understood or listened well enough to the person that’s talking to me.”

McLeod says that the anxiety is very physical for her and will often make her stomach hurt.

“I just really need to isolate myself sometimes, and it’s hard to explain that to people. I need to explain that to them so they know it’s not about them. I’m not trying to be rude. I just really need—at some point—to be able to be on my own.”

But McLeod says it doesn’t surprise her that she reacts in a physical way to what is going on in her head. Often, she says, her stomach will display intense pain at the end of the day.

“The gut relies on the same neurochemicals our brain relies on. I think I’m often complaining that my stomach hurts, and I think it’s totally related to what’s going on in my mind,” she says.

A LIFELONG JOURNEY

Former Camosun Psychology student Kylie Ransome has chosen to pursue her passion by working as a care aide for Island Health. She specializes in helping patients with dementia and mood disorders, and she says that one of the keys for her in talking someone back down to rational thinking is asking herself what they are missing. Ransome says “every behaviour is a communication,” an idea that she says is essential in helping others and herself.

Ransome stresses the importance of “giving people the time and space to express their needs, and respecting those needs, so if someone’s saying, ‘No, I can’t go out today,’ don’t look at it as a slight, don’t take it personally,” she says.

She says it’s also important to separate the state of someone’s mental health from the state of their relationships with others.

“A lot of spouses of people living with mental illness take things quite personally,” she says.

Ransome has also struggled with anxiety; she’s made a recovery but says mindfulness and physical exercise are essential.

“I think a lot of people have trouble understanding that, for someone living with anxiety or depression, our reality is different. We can’t just look at something and say, ‘Oh, it’s okay,’” she says, “because every neurochemical response in our body is saying it’s not okay.”

Ransome—who has completed dialectical behavioural therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy courses—says that the part of the brain that registers physical pain also lights up when a person experiences emotional pain.

“When you get hurt—say you break an arm—this whole axis of your brain lights up and starts this big feedback that says, ‘Hey, you’re in pain. Retreat; deal with this.’”

Ransome says that the same part of the brain lights up when people are experiencing social or psychological pain.

“The brain literally thinks you have broken an arm,” she says. “People are very stuck in ‘oh, you just need to get over it.’ Well, you can’t. You have to rewire your brain first.”

Ransome says that with a combined approach of medication and intense therapy, that rewiring can be done.

“I spent many years with a combined approach: antidepressants and cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behavioural therapy,” she says. “And it helped. The combined approach worked.”

Now, Ransome conducts workshops around mental health.

“Rather than looking at thoughts and saying, ‘Are these thoughts rational? Is this actually reality, or is this a negative thought pattern?’ I’m looking more at, ‘Is this what I want for myself? Is this the kind of approach I can take to my thinking?’”

Ransome says that it’s vital to take care of herself before she goes to work and takes care of others.

“When you work with vulnerable people, it’s a lot of giving,” she says. “You have to give a lot, and you’ve got to be very patient and very compassionate; otherwise, you’re doing a disservice to the person.”

Ransome says that looking at mental health from a recovery-based point of view is one of the best ways to ensure that those affected get treated properly in all aspects of their lives.

“It’s becoming more and more clear that the brain is an extremely plastic organ,” she says. “Yes, there are some neurochemical diseases that are going to be a little more prevalent in someone’s life, but for the most part, people can learn to cope with and overcome mental illness.”

Ransome likens the struggle to diabetes, which is “just one organ acting up, the same as mental illness.” She says that after years and years of therapy combined with medication, her mental health is “not a daily hindrance,” but rather something that requires awareness, and is something that she sometimes needs to compensate for.

“If you’re getting into a difficult situation, be aware that it could be a trigger; it could be something that could push you back into a depressive low,” she says. 

Although medication did have its time and place for Ransome, she says that she had to stop taking it when she became a student, because the side effects had a debilitating effect on her working memory.

“The side effects started outweighing the benefits,” she says. “I decided I wanted to go back to school, and, unfortunately, a lot of SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors]s create a bit of a memory fog. So when I first tried to go back to school… You can’t do school without a working short-term memory. It did not go well.”

Ransome weighed her long-term goals against these effects on her short-term memory and realized that she needed to be able to perform. Now, she relies on naturally produced brain chemicals.

“Another big thing that helps is just making exercise a focus of my life,” she says, “getting that natural endorphin process going to keep everything balanced.”

The CCSS’ Grant acknowledges that some side effects of different medications can be rough, and, like Ransome says, it can negatively affect a person’s studies. (The CCSS does cover various medications through its health and dental plan for students.)

“I’m personally aware that it is a reality of some psychiatric medications,” says Grant.

 

Balderson says that there is definitely a genetic predisposition at play when it comes to her mental health. She recently returned from spending a semester in Wales, but she says that there wasn’t a huge difference in her mental health there compared to at home. It’s fairly constant for her, but—as Ransome said can be done—Balderson is learning to cope and get through.

“Depression follows me wherever I go, no matter what was going on. But I got through it, and I’m glad that I went,” she says about her trip to Wales.

Balderson says that professors at Camosun were more or less understanding when she approached them asking for extensions due to her health.

“I think a lot of people are scared that if they tell people, they’re going to look at them differently,” she says. “They were all pretty good about it if I was able to talk to them.”

Balderson says that if she is having a really rough time, it helps to look at her tattoo, make a phone call, and remind herself that emotions, by their very nature, fluctuate.

“Just getting it open and telling someone else what I’m feeling really helps a lot,” she says. “It might help, it might not, but at least then I know I’m not totally alone. Depression is super isolating. It makes you feel like you’re in a little bubble with this dark cloud hanging over you.”

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