“What are people going to think?”: The struggles and successes of students with mental illness
Managing News Editor
Living each day with mental illness for senior Stephen Pihl can be like trying to escape from a lethal, aphotic labyrinth.
“Everyone’s day is like a maze,” he said. “Some days, the maze is easier than others, but you always get out. For me that maze is 10 times bigger, 10 times more complicated, and when it’s really really bad, it’s like that maze is pitch black and there’s someone in that maze trying to kill me. And sometimes I don’t make it out of that maze and so I’m stuck, I’m stuck and so I can’t live a certain day because I’m stuck in yesterday’s maze or last week’s maze, still trying to figure it out.”
Pihl lives with Bipolar II disorder, and said that he hopes others understand that the increased difficulty of this metaphorical maze is the only difference between himself and “neurotypical” individuals.
Pihl’s experience is not unheard of. According to a study by the Healthy Minds Network, about 36 percent of college students have been diagnosed with a mental illness at one point in their lives. A World Health Organization (WHO) study corroborates this, stating that about one third of college freshmen worldwide “report symptoms consistent with a diagnosable mental health disorder.”
While such statistics hint at the scope of the problem, the day-to-day reality of college students with mental illness is more complicated.
Pihl’s problems started in middle school — he was bullied badly and attempted suicide. When he graduated from high school as a four-sport, varsity athlete with a 3.8 GPA who was voted funniest in his class, things, at least on paper, were great. Turmoil, however, was hidden underneath his polished surface.
“I would just go for long walks in like the parking lot behind George Read… I would just walk, and like cry, because I didn’t want to worry my roommates, because obviously I don’t know them.”
He was depressed, but he also heard sounds that nobody else did. He would have periods of overconfidence and impulsivity — he once thought he could climb Mount Everest in shorts and t-shirt, and he would get speeding tickets and take unnecessary risks. Pihl was finally diagnosed in his senior year of high school with bipolar disorder.
He arrived at the university shortly after spending time at an inpatient psychiatric unit. While he was not seeing a therapist, he had been put on high doses of medication, which made it difficult to concentrate. Sometimes he couldn’t remember how to spell his name or who he was talking to.
Pihl, a neuroscience and biology double major, began failing all of his classes. He also said he was good at hiding his problems and “overcompensated” by frequently partying. This only provided a brief reprieve.
“I would just go for long walks in like the parking lot behind George Read… I would just walk, and like cry, because I didn’t want to worry my roommates, because obviously I don’t know them,” Pihl said.
Halfway through his freshman year, he decided to take a medical leave of absence.
Pihl is one of the 34.9 percent of students nationwide who currently sees a mental health professional and also had counseling prior to attending college, according to the Collegiate Center for Mental Health (CCMH). For the other 65.1 percent, college is the first time they have sought professional help.
When Amanda, who requested that only her first name be used, was a senior at the university, she found herself crying most nights. Amanda began to manifest strange symptoms. She was hearing things, experiencing hot flashes, her tongue was tingling and she was anxious.
When a friend noticed that there was something wrong, they took her to the university counseling center. There, Amanda spoke to a therapist, and she decided to go home for a few days and try to unwind. Her parents picked her up that weekend.
A few days later, her parents took her to the hospital as her odd symptoms persisted. She had not slept in about four days. From there, she was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit.
At the unit, she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression — she had been having panic attacks. She said she was terrified that she would never recover and sad that she would likely not be able to graduate with her friends.
“I kind of just cried a lot at first because I was upset, I wasn’t at school and I was like ‘what are people going to think,’” she said.
Amanda said that, while she thinks the stigma surrounding mental illness is diminishing, there’s still negative rhetoric being used.
“I feel like the stigma is if you’re on medication for depression or anxiety or anything else, I feel like it makes you seem like you’re crazy,” she said. “And people are like ‘oh you’re crazy, you’re psycho.’”
Brad Wolgast, director of the university’s Center for Counseling and Student Development (CCSD), said friends like Amanda’s can play a crucial role in helping someone cope with mental illness. Asking a friend how they’re doing and listening intently can be a comfort. Amanda and Pihl echoed this idea, saying that friends listening without judgement or stating their support can be a relief.
But, Wolgast explained, friends of struggling students should be careful to recognize when a problem is beyond their control and encourage those suffering to see a mental health professional.
“Some of the people we meet — they’re caring people who become caretakers for their friends and roommates and their friends,” he said. “It’s too much work for us to expect or for anyone to expect a friend can be the mental health caretaker for one or two of their friends with serious mental health problems.”
The counseling center Wolgast runs is free for student use. It’s located inside of Perkins Student Center. One of the center’s biggest strengths, he said, is its personnel. Amanda and Pihl echoed this sentiment— both found the counselors to be helpful and caring.
Both Wolgast and Pihl believe that the best way to improve the center would be to grow the staff.
If the center’s 16 full-time and part-time counselors each had eight, one-hour-appointments every day, they would be able to see 896 students each week. The university has a total enrollment of about 24,000. Applying the ratios found by the Healthy Minds Network and WHO, approximately one third of students, or roughly 8,000 students at the university, could present symptoms of mental illness.
Wolgast noted that the university’s student-to-counselor ratio is better than many other universities, and is within accreditation recommendations. He also said the budget for the center, which he was unable to disclose, is almost entirely dedicated to hiring and maintaining counseling staff. The need for more mental health personnel, however, is increasing both at the university and nationwide.
According to Wolgast, the center has had an 81 percent increase in students using their emergency services over the past four years. The CCMH study stated that over five years, counseling center use throughout the U.S. went up by an average of 30 to 40 percent.
He said this is likely a combination of decreased stigma, increased awareness and an increase in mental illness itself. He also said that there appears to be a correlation between sleep loss and mental illness.
Ella, a senior who also requested that her last name not be used, saw a counselor for the first time at the university. She said she may have had anxiety before college, but it got noticeably worse when she arrived at the university — it affected her ability to sit through classes and have fun with friends.
“I gained anxiety when I came to school — the main reason for seeing the counselor now — I would say definitely it’s something that is not crazy rare,” she said, explaining that she knows a lot of people affected by anxiety.
She went to the university counseling center, too, and said the center has helped her. She said she also learned the importance of finding a counselor who is a good fit for the individual seeking help.
The mission of the CCSD, Wolgast said, is to help as many students as possible get the help they need, particularly those in crisis, or a situation where they are not longer safe, and operates under a short-term model like nearly every other college counseling center in the country.
For students who are recognized to have needs beyond the scope of CCSD, the center hired a referral coordinator to assist them in finding local resources. The center also offers group therapy and a helpline that students can call for anything from an emergency or to talk about everyday stressors.
Pihl used the counseling center when he returned to school, though he now sees a non-university therapist. Especially in the beginning, he had to adjust to his new, personal version of normalcy.
“[People think that with the] normal college experience you’re not going to therapy, with the normal college experience you’re not doing these types of things,” he said. “But what is normal? That’s up to you to decide.”
In addition to official treatment, Pihl said his professors, who are for the most part accommodating, have been “just the biggest blessing.” A few have made themselves available outside of class to talk as mentors and friends.
He is also a member of Friends4Friends, a group on campus that aims to normalize discussions about mental health and provide a peer support network for students who may feel like they’re alone and have nobody to talk to.
The group hosts meetings and events like game nights or Sunday bonfires, open to everybody on campus, not just members, to help combat the “Sunday scaries.” Pihl hopes that when people spot the Friends4Friends logo around campus, they know the individual sporting the logo is an ally and there to help or lend a sympathetic ear.
Amanda is a new member of Friends4Friends. After the inpatient psychiatric program and then an outpatient one, she returned to school last spring. She said she was excited to see her friends again and that they were supportive. The university counseling center helped her find a long-term counselor in Delaware and re-adjust to student life. Today, she said, she feels like she’s “back to [her] old self.”
Amanda is also passionate about mental health advocacy — as an education major, she hopes to bring awareness to the classroom. This, she said, is because, before her experience, she only had basic knowledge on the subject.
“When people ask me questions about it, I’m very open to talk about it now because I want to help other people who are experiencing the same thing because I feel like I’m back to my old self now, but at the time it was so scary and I didn’t know what was going on,” Amanda said.
She said she has turned her experience from a negative one to a positive one — using it to better herself and help others.
“It’s not something that you necessarily have to be in medication for the rest of your life. It could be something that just happened,” she said. “You can still go back to being your old self but you’re just growing and learning more about ways to cope with it every day.”
Pihl said that finding the right counseling, medication and support systems have helped him to heal. He too speaks openly about mental illness, and is continuing to learn from his experiences.
“You can either run from the past or learn from it,” he said. “And I choose very much so to learn from it.”
Kevin Travers contributed reporting.