We are delegitimizing mental illness.
Seriously. Maybe you, the person reading this, would never tell someone suffering from depression that they were “just lazy,” or tell a friend having a anxiety attack to just “calm down and breathe.” Depression is not a model in a ShutterStock image gazing out a window with a melancholy expression, and anxiety is not just being nervous about a test. If you don’t think that college students are at a high risk for just these two situations, you are wrong. 36.4% of college students show depressive tendencies, and 41.6% present anxiety (American Psychological Association). But how did we get here? What do we do about it? How do those who watch their loved ones suffer attempt to help when there is almost nothing they can do?
Beginning with depression is the logical idea, as it had been clinically classified longer (all the way back to Hippocrates, depression was discussed and debated). A large issue, at least with modern views of depression, involve the media. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the media is still very much stuck reporting the stereotypes of depression. Gender roles, states the article, play a significant role in these stereotypes; the depressed stay-at-home mother is propped up on Prozac to keep her happy in her cozy cage. A man, meanwhile, would be depressed from his job or sport. These are very tidy roles, and not ones that encourages outside discussion of mental illness.
Perhaps this stems from a lack of understanding of the symptoms of depression. There are several misconceptions about depression, and several phrases that go along with them. One of the most common, often from older generations, is “oh, you’re just tired and lazy!” This refers to the fact that a common symptom of depression is lethargy or even an inability to leave one’s bed.
Giovanni Ghigliazza, a sophomore Mechanical Engineering student at San Jose State University (SJSU), says when he encounters these misconceptions, he simply says “I just straight up tell them they’re wrong.”
Ghigliazza’s family lost their home and most of their possessions in the Sonoma County fires in 2017. This event triggered a depression that has extended these last seven months, which was added to Ghigliazza’s previously diagnosed anxiety. He says the biggest incorrect assumptions that people make are that depression is a temporary affliction, and that anxiety is just nervousness.
The Guardian’s 2015 article titled “How Not To Talk To Someone With Depression” agrees with Ghigliazza’s experience. The very first “do not” is to assume that depression is just being really sad. S.E. Smith, the author of the article, deftly explains that there is quite a distinct difference between being “very sad” and actually having depression; “Depression includes components of sadness, but it’s tangled with – depending on the person – fatigue, suicidal ideation, the inability to function or complete tasks of daily living, low or increased appetite, and many other symptoms.”
These misconceptions prove difficult when it comes to receiving mental health aid from a university. Ghigliazza spoke to all his professors about his depression and his need to take some time away from class; “They understood the situation I was in from a person-to-person basis, but from student-to-professor I was given two options: either take my exams like everyone else, or drop the class.” The particular symptoms he suffered from included: High stress, inability to perform academically, difficulty sleeping (nightmares), and difficulty focusing. Any of these on their own would have caused problems for a college student, but all of them in concert is almost insurmountably challenging.
Ghigliazza also mentioned that SJSU’s support of its students coping with mental illness is limited. The college did contact the students with some options after the fires, but they essentially left them alone. “Shortly after the fires there was an email that was sent out to those affected saying there was potential help on campus,” He remembers. “ However, there was no follow up; the college simply moved on even though the students affected had not. “
Elijah Jones, a junior Microbiology major at Santa Rosa Community College (SRJC), says that none of his teachers know about his depression, and that “[college] has exacerbated it.” He does mention, however, that SRJC does take more of a direct role in its students mental health.;“[SRJC] counts depression and anxiety as a disability and allows you to sign up for disability resources. This includes the ability to take tests at different times, for longer duration, in different places, sign up for classes earlier, etc.”
The misconceptions over anxiety that Jones has noticed are more subtle. He says that the worst is “That someone with depression is the person who mopes in the back or the person with anxiety is the one that bites their nails or etc. People think they can recognize the signs, but in reality, someone even lightly faking being okay can easily pass by these people unnoticed.”
Both Ghigliazza and Jones have had depression and anxiety long-term, thus dispelling the earlier notion that depression is a short-term affliction. Depression is manageable, but is often a lifelong factor in a person’s life,
Cal State Monterey Bay does have a Personal Growth and Counseling Center, as well as several organizations dedicated to mental illness. But when asked about the options provided here on campus and their effectiveness, junior Collaborative Health and Human Services major Melissa Scheckner has reservations. “These places and those that provide the services often come off as distant and detached, like they don’t care about you personally, but they care about the problem itself. The services are there, but the staff could use some compassion training in making themselves seem like they care about what is happening to that student, and how they can help their case specifically; not what they can do that they have used in the past that has worked before.” Scheckner has been diagnosed with depression for around 10 years, and unlike Jones and Ghigliazza, she is medicated.
Scheckner points out the stigma around medication and mental illness; “People who say these things to those with mental illness make us feel bad for being sick, when they would never shame a diabetic person for taking insulin.” Indeed, many people have taken to sites such as Facebook and Twitter, posting sentiments such as “this isn’t medication (over a picture of a bottle of pills); THIS is medication (over a picture of a person running in a forest).”
This could stem from the fact that natural settings can ease the symptoms of depression. According to Rob Jordan at Standford University, a study found that communing with nature; ‘“These findings are important because they are consistent with, but do not yet prove, a causal link between increasing urbanization and increased rates of mental illness,” said co-author James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford.” However, it should be made very clear; this study does not prove a link between nature and curing mental illness. People who are suffering from mental illness should seek the advice of a professional, of course, and that professional will determine what is truly “medication.”
Scheckner also suffers from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety often works as an opposite to depression symptoms, yet still in a negative way. Scheckner says that she encounters misconceptions over anxiety “all the time…Those lucky enough to not have to suffer with anxiety or depression do not understand just what goes through your head or how you may be feeling in that moment. When my depression acts up, I do want to get things done, but my body physically gives out and will not let me do anything. When my anxiety gets bad, I literally cannot think about anything else other than what I am anxious about, and therefore cannot “calm down” until I figure out what is bothering me.”
Scheckner’s symptoms, similarly, include alertness, worrying about many of life’s day-to-day tasks, elevated heart rate, being unsure of herself in many aspects of life (school, work, etc.), constant cycle of thoughts running through her head head (making it hard to focus on things).
These, unfortunately, are only half the battle. Anxiety also comes with panic attacks, for most. Panic attacks are generally sudden, intense bouts of anxiety that tend to be all-consuming. Think of a power surge hitting an unprotected outlet. For Scheckner, an attack means being overly alert/mildly paranoid, clammy hands, unable to take a full breath, tightening in chest, claustrophobia, nausea, shakiness, and elevated heart rate.
Now, at this point, the question may have crossed your mind; why the constant list of symptoms? Isn’t depression universal? Aren’t all anxiety attacks the same?
That’s where you’re wrong, my friend. As with any mental illness, depression and anxiety are utterly unique to each person. Several people may share symptoms; for instance, Jones and Scheckner both list an inability to get out of bed as a factor during severe bouts of depression. However, they may express and cope with these symptoms in very different ways. Coping mechanisms can vary extremely widely, from healthy to vicious circles.
Ghigliazza says his main mechanism is videogames. “It keeps my mind off of things and lets me spend time with those who care about me,” he explains. “I’d say that’s a decently healthy mechanism.”
The middle ground hosts Scheckner’s coping strategies; “I do have several ways of coping, many of which are not unhealthy when they are not used everyday. However, if my anxiety or depression are acting up very frequently for long periods of time, I cannot control what I do to help deal with them.”
Unfortunately, Jones admits, his coping mechanisms are not the best. He tends to suppress his emotions, and “turns a little too easily to alcohol when emotional.”
Luckily, all three of them have received support from those close to them. “My friends, family, and girlfriend may be the only reason I haven’t completely fallen apart,” Ghigliazza says. Jones also says that he has been supported. Scheckner is very enthusiastic; “My family and friends are extremely supportive of me and my struggles, and understand when I am suffering with these issues more than most days. They try to help talk me through whatever problem I am dealing with, but sometimes, all I need is someone who will just listen and sit with me, which helps to take the pressure off of me to work through my problems as soon as possible.”
So, now that you know what depression and anxiety mean for the people that suffer from them, how can you help? How does a person with only second-hand experience assist someone in so much pain? It will take dedication, and lots of communication, and of course this will not fit every situation, but there are ways to help.
First, understand that there is a difference between helping and supporting. Helping is directly assisting a loved one in their lives. This could be directly asking what they need. Often, it will not be much in terms of physical duties.
Supporting is more subtle, and yet, often more important. A person suffering from mental illness often feels as though they are a burden to their friends, that no one would want to deal with their problems. “Let them know you’re there for whatever they need, then back off a bit,” Scheckner suggests. “Constantly asking a person if they’re okay only reinforces the idea in their head that something is wrong.” Ghigliazza concurs; “Exist. Be a part of my life. Come hang out. Get online and play video games with me. Let’s go watch a movie. Sympathy won’t change what happened, but company does help.”
An unnamed source, also from SRJC and a person who is very close to someone with mental illness, perhaps put it best; “Just be there for them.”