Don’t suffer in silence

Mood disorders can be dark, but they are common and treatable.

Allison Fingerett

When my Hebrew professor assigned a âÄú50-word personal journal,âÄù I needed to collect the proper arsenal. I can write about trees and juice and various cities in Israel, but none of these topics do much to convey the inner workings of my psyche. I raised my hand; I had to ask. âÄúHow do you say, âÄòIâÄôm depressedâÄô?âÄù Depression is serious business; itâÄôs not your average bummer. There are handy diagnostic checklists with ambiguous buzzwords like âÄúfatigue,âÄù but itâÄôs best described as a deep, irrational cavern of hopelessness âÄî a dark cloud that colors each day. ItâÄôs scary and isolating, but itâÄôs less lonely than you think. Mental illness is bred in a variety of ways, usually a delicate interplay between nature and nurture. Often hereditary, it can rear its ugly head in the presence of stress or substantial life changes, but depression can strike independent of genetics, when circumstances combine forces to create the perfect storm. Depression is an illness like any other; gone untreated, results can be tragic. The Star Tribune ran a story last week detailing the âÄúnational crisisâÄú of student suicide. The article gave cause for alarm: âÄúSuicide is the second leading cause of death among college students,âÄù it warned. I spoke to students and several mental health professionals on campus to uncover the facts. âÄúWe have seen consistent increases of 3 to 5 percent per year in the number of students requesting our services,âÄù said Dr. Glenn Hirsch, director of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Counseling and Consulting Services (UCCS). But these numbers donâÄôt indicate an increase in people suffering from depression, Hirsch says, so much as an increase in awareness and a reduction in social stigmas. If youâÄôve used a University bathroom this semester, youâÄôve likely seen a sign for the Stamp out Stigma campaign, which is essentially a reminder that no one should suffer with mental illness in silence. And theyâÄôre right. While college has always been a pressure cooker, the experience is now colored by massive debt, endless graduation requirements and no promise of gainful employment when the journey is through. ItâÄôs enough to drive a sane person mad. In a 2009 survey conducted by Boynton Health Service, 26.4 percent of students reported an inability to manage their stress level. If roughly one-fourth of the student body feels their stress is unmanageable, thatâÄôs unacceptable. We could blame these students for taking on too many credits (but every credit over 13 is free!), or choosing to juggle work and school, but some are forced to work themselves ragged because exorbitant tuition leaves them no other choice. In the same Boynton survey, 25.3 percent of students reported a diagnosis of depression within their lifetime. Yet somehow itâÄôs hard to remember such prevalence when suffering alone. I asked a classmate if sheâÄôd ever experienced depression and if she felt the stress of school played a significant role. âÄúI missed class yesterday because I was crying in the fetal position about a paper I canâÄôt seem to write,âÄù she said. And since IâÄôd done the very same thing last week, we laughed at the dark coincidence. And it felt good. A positive support system is the key to living with depression. If you donâÄôt feel comfortable talking to your friends and family about your emotional state, there is a wealth of resources on campus. UCCS and the Mental Health Clinic at Boynton both offer mental health services. UCCS is centered on counseling, while Boynton offers medical resources in addition to talk therapy, but either will welcome you with open arms if you need to talk to someone. Neither charges more than $15 per session for insured students. âÄúThereâÄôs no need for people to keep suffering with depression when we know there is effective treatment available,âÄù said Hirsch. Therapy works. No counselor is interested in probing or judging you. If you can build a relationship with a particular therapist, they become a partner in unlocking the mystery of how your mind works. My therapist is awesome. Sometimes it bums me out that I have to pay someone to remind me that life is worth living and that IâÄôm actually in the process of living it, but everyone has their quirks. Cognitive therapy is not the only successful treatment. ItâÄôs amazing what a few simple lifestyle changes can do for your mood. First and foremost, find your mental oasis. Allow yourself the time it takes to recharge. For some, thatâÄôs yoga or meditation. For others, itâÄôs watching a movie. But donâÄôt beat yourself up for having stepped away from the workload long enough to prevent insanity. Medication is also an option, but the pharmaceutical fix is not ideal. In some cases, antidepressants make normal life possible, but they present hidden challenges beyond the obvious solutions. Dr. Gary Christenson, director of the Mental Health Clinic at Boynton, showed me numbers that prove student suicide rates are actually stable. Turns out itâÄôs not a crisis âÄî at least not here. But it is a subject that deserves adequate attention. Depression can be fatal. Most professors are willing to work with students who encounter emotional roadblocks, as long as they communicate. No hole is too deep to crawl your way out of. But if the thought of crawling is far too exhausting, there is help. The hub of mental health resources can be found at www.mentalhealth.umn.edu. DonâÄôt suffer in silence. You are not alone. Sometimes we need someone to remind us that lifeâÄôs simple joys are everywhere. ThereâÄôs plenty to be said about willow trees and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Allison Fingerett welcomes comments at [email protected]