When you were little, did you ever have friends your mom made you hang out with, even though you didn’t want to? Then those friends kept showing up, and you were confused and sick of them. Soon enough, those friends were around so much that you got used to them. Finally, those friends were always with you and never left, and you almost began to enjoy having them around.
Until last year, this was my relationship with my mental illness.
My depression took root in the beginning of my middle school years and will be with me for the rest of my life. Although I was mostly a happy child, I suffered bouts of deep sadness that felt like a heavy boulder on my chest. These bouts would come and go, but they did not outwardly affect me until I was a new sophomore at Deerfield.
We all know that some people find winter at Deerfield lonely, dark, and long. I began isolating myself in my room, pulling away from my relationships, and giving up on schoolwork. During the last few weeks of spring term, my sadness surrounded me constantly. But that summer after my sophomore year, my friend depression rarely came around anymore, and I was thankful for her absence.
Two weeks before my junior year began, however, my friend came back and planned to stay. My sense of well-being was already compromised, and I totally lost it after someone I knew and loved broke serious sexual boundaries with me. I did the worst thing a victim can do, and I pretended it hadn’t happened. This all became too much, and I attempted to take my own life.
I returned to school for the fall of my junior year, but I realized that I could not handle the stresses Deerfield presented. I went to treatment for my depression and returned to the valley for my senior year.
Coming back from medical leave was definitely not what I expected. I saw a stark contrast between my treatment facility—a place full of aware and accepting people—and my experience at Deerfield. Although my friends were extremely supportive, they seemed to be the only ones who knew what had been going on in my life for the past year.
Dr. Josh Relin, Director of Counseling at Deerfield, has explained to me that federal laws designed to protect patient privacy constrain what information can be shared in workplaces and schools. “There is a strong firewall between what happens in the Health Center and the other adults in the community due to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act),” he said. “This law determines how health information can and cannot be shared.”
HIPAA was designed to protect patient privacy, yet in my experience, it left me feeling very much alone.
I didn’t care that students thought that I had left because of an eating disorder, or that I had been bullied, but it concerned me that my teachers and advisors didn’t know what I had been going through. Even though it was helpful for me to discuss my struggles with all of those important people in my life, it was still uncomfortable, and it was hard for me to take the initiative. In the future, I hope that the Health Center reaches out to students before they return from medical leave in order to discuss how the school can make their adjustment back to Deerfield less difficult. If they had reached out to me, I would have let them know that I wanted my circumstances shared with my teachers and advisors before I returned to campus; this would have made my transition back a lot easier.
Deerfield is one of the top educational institutions in the country, yet no one seems to know how to talk about mental illness. People talk about cancer freely; why is it so difficult to discuss the effects of depression, bi-polar, anxiety, or schizophrenic disorders? Just because the illness may not be outwardly visible doesn’t mean the person suffering from it isn’t struggling. I have experienced a lot of stigma surrounding mental health on Deerfield’s campus. As students, we have the power to end that immediately. Stigma places blame on the person suffering from the illness and makes them ashamed to talk openly about what they’re going through.
Teachers and students on our campus can do their best to be more aware when discussing mental health issues. If someone says they’re feeling depressed, a good way to respond would be, “What are some other things you’re feeling? What do you think has brought this on?” If you don’t feel comfortable saying either of those, say, “I don’t understand what you’re going through, but I am here for support.” Too often, people speak before they think, and that can damage the trust in a relationship. If someone confides in you, try not to say, “It’s all in your mind,” or “lighten up,” or, my personal favorite, “Happiness is a choice.” No, it’s really not. When I’m in a really bad place, I do my best to surround myself with positive people and upbeat music, but too often it feels as if I’m drowning in my own thoughts, while everyone else seems to be breathing comfortably.
Many people are suffering, but because many people feel uncomfortable talking about it, no one is aware of the sufferers. This leaves people feeling even more alone. Since I spoke about this issue at school meeting, I have had countless people approach me, telling me that they, too, are struggling and would love to be more open about it. I am calling all members of the Deerfield community to come forward and talk freely about mental health issues. We are all either struggling or know someone who is battling an illness; let’s come together to make our community more inclusive and comfortable.