Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Mental illness survivors share stories - The Dartmouth

By Michael Coburn

Five Dartmouth students gathered at Tindle Lounge Tuesday to recount their stories about combating mental illness during an event sponsored by Active Minds, a campus organization dedicated to raising awareness of mental illness.

"In Dartmouth, mental illness is often swept under the rug," Heather Olson '07, the leader of the panel, said. "There are a lot of resources available, but often people don't take advantage of them because of the stigma."

The meeting was designed not just to share stories, but also to show where students currently suffering from mental illness could seek help. A therapist from Dick's House was available for consultation after the meeting.

Most panelists cited their family as the main source of their disorder. Bailey Massey '08, who suffered from an eating disorder said her problem did not originate from the media but rather from her mother.

"One day I asked my mom if I was fat," Massey said. "Instead of trying to comfort me, she responded with 'You could lose a few pounds.'"

Another panelist, Jessica Lane '09, suffered from self-mutilation. She believes that her problems were a direct result of a family conflict arising from her sister, who has been diagnosed with a wide range of mental disorders.

"One of my worst memories was that of my sister hitting my mom, and all my mom was doing was crying, not trying to stop her, but trying to give her a hug," Lane said.

Family conflict is one cause of mental illness, but family genetics are also important. Every panelist came from a family with a history of mental illness.

"I want to re-echo the genetic component," said Ben Jastrzembski '08, who suffered from severe depression. "Behavior matters, but genetics has an enormous impact in mental illness."

Many panelists felt trapped in their cycle of depression.

"I have few memories of high school that are not filled by darkness and despair," Eleanor Smith '09 said. "I felt as if I was in a dark tunnel in which there was no way out."

Despite the seriousness of their conditions, many of the panelists initially did not want to seek help. At the urging of their family and friends, however, they were able to get the counseling and medication they needed.

Combating mental illness and its aftermath is still a challenge for many. Amanda Wilson '08 suffered from depression, but still has yet to tell her father that she sought help, and some panelists such as Massey admit that they have suffered from occasional relapses.

Despite their difficulties, all the panelists were able to overcome their afflictions and get their lives back on track.

"The defining moment for me was during the 4th of July," Smith said. "My mom came up to me and said 'It's nice to have my daughter back.' I just looked at her and said, 'It's nice to be back.'"

In addition to recounting personal experiences, the panelists advised audience members.

"To all those suffering from a mental illness, one thing I want to say is that you are not alone," Smith said. "When I found the courage to open up, I realized that there were others just like me. When I tell people about my mental illness I get many responses, but I have never had a negative one."