My greatest fear has always been asking for help. The prospect of vulnerability terrifies me, and I believed that asking for help would be the hardest part of my mental health journey. However, I was continuously proven wrong, instead learning that accessing the right kind of help is exponentially more difficult.
My fear of vulnerability did not keep those closest to me from seeing that something was wrong. Before university, I spent most of my life keeping myself distracted; I was a busy kid and pushing myself to perfection. This constant preoccupation provided me with an outlet that enabled me to conceal that I had a mental illness. For years, it felt like my condition was just the norm, and I repeatedly convinced myself that it was all simply ‘in my head.’
The stressful and fast-paced environment of university life forced me to acknowledge the truth of my illness. I could no longer display the facade of ‘perfection’ – following my first year, I considered dropping out altogether. But I couldn’t stand the notion of being viewed as weak, and so I continued to suppress my mental illness and pursued my studies as usual.
Last year, my own version of rock bottom forced me to enter the McGill Counselling Service and finally come to terms with this part of myself. After spending an hour with a counsellor, I had been made to face a long list of negatives in my life. I was given an exam deferral letter, but encouraged not to use it; the counsellor didn’t seem to understand the severity of my situation, and solely focused on whether or not I could “pass the class” rather than on mitigating my major depressive episode.
In the following months I spent most of my days sleeping or crying. I lacked the energy to concentrate even on basic conversation, and I began isolating myself from my family and friends. I lost my appetite, which was a major contributing factor to me shrinking to under 100 pounds. I was acutely aware that I was losing control of my once seemingly perfect life. The only consistent thought I had was wondering how far this needed to go in order for someone to notice that I needed help.
The answer, it turns out, was quite far. It wasn’t until spending a lot of time with my mother that summer that I was encouraged to see a psychiatrist for what had become an emergency situation. Fourth year came with a new diagnosis: clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I was put on an antidepressant and referred to the McGill Mental Health Service (MMHS), where I was set up with bi-weekly check-ups with a psychiatrist and weekly appointments with a psychologist.
This should have been a helpful, positive experience, yet both of these relationships felt far from authentic. It felt like first year all over again – I was just another number. For the first time, I was divulging some of my darkest secrets to someone, and more often than not, it was as if the therapist sitting across the room wasn’t even present. My appointments appeared to serve the sole purpose of ensuring I hadn’t hurt myself and did not intend to do so. After a year of trying to establish and foster a two-sided relationship with my caregivers at MMHS, I stopped going to my weekly psychologist appointments, only using the services for monthly five-minute exchanges about prescriptions with a psychiatrist.
In a way, this isn’t all that surprising. MMHS becomes crowded with students seeking exam deferrals and other forms of quick documentation, so student mental health care is a one-stop solution for many. Unfortunately, this process carries over and affects those in need of long-term treatment. Students seeking help beyond academic accommodations become overshadowed, their illnesses dismissed with suggestions of short-term fixes.
University creates a high-risk environment for those experiencing, or likely to experience, mental illness. This competitive and high-pressure academic setting tends to blur the fine line that exists between a mental illness and regular (though sometimes intense) stress, but MMHS professionals should know that the two cases must be treated differently. While stress can be a precursor to depression, it is generally only temporary, coming and going, and often linked to major life events. Depression, on the other hand, is all-consuming. It leaves one feeling unhappy even when everything in their life is going just right.
Yet, no one ever followed up with me when I stopped going to therapy. No one was responsible for me – and this type of safety net is essential to anyone suffering from a severe mental illness. When I was faced with major depressive episodes, I was no longer afraid of asking for help; rather, I was afraid of what professional help would actually entail.
This December, I had my final appointment with the psychiatrist at MMHS. Despite my less than positive experiences in the past, I was hoping they would be able to point me toward mental health care options to help me do well after graduation. I was instructed to contact my local community service centre (CLSC), given a six-month prescription for antidepressants, and simply told, “good luck.” I left with no plan, and once again, experienced the feeling of being left to fend for my own illness. This is a scenario that is detrimental to the well-being of someone with a mental illness, for whom routine and support are vital. As I walked out of MMHS for the last time, I had to acknowledge the harsh truth: I was no longer their problem.
During my time at McGill, I have come to terms with my mental illness. I am ready to confront and overcome the challenges this illness poses in my life, but frankly MMHS has never provided me with that opportunity. On the verge of graduation, I am leaving with an immense amount of gratitude for the support system I fostered here at McGill. Unfortunately, MMHS will never be a part of this support system. It was not their services that helped me overcome my darkest times, but the friends and family who selflessly took responsibility for my well-being and continue to stand by me through it all.
Anna Pearson is a U4 Kinesiology student. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.