Students gathered last Thursday for a panel discussion centred around lived experiences with mental illness, as part of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Mental Health Awareness Week. Panelists included Alyssa Wooster, a third year psychology student, Alison Gu, a third year student and floor fellow at Douglas Hall, and Clark Bray, in his last year at McGill.
The focus of the panel was broad: it aimed to break down stigmas around mental illness, open discussion about how mental health has impacted students’ daily lives and identities, as well as how students have coped with their mental health at McGill.
According to the organizers, the event was intentionally open-ended in order to make it accessible to a broader range of attendees:. It began with each panelist telling their personal stories of mental illness.
Wooster talked about the way that the university environment exacerbated her anxiety disorder.
“I thought that everything would get better when I went to university because a lot of my dissatisfaction with my life was due to my home living conditions,” she said. “McGill’s gonna be the best four years of my life, I’m so excited, this is going to be amazing,’ and then I think I hit the lowest mental place in my life.”
“At the end of first year is when I realized there was a real problem,” Wooster continued. “And I was not speaking to any of my friends. I would climb up the back stairs of my [residence] just so I could avoid seeing anyone. I left at least one exam in tears. […] It kind of just got to a point where I was like, […] you need to be honest with yourself […] I think that it’s time that you go and you seek help.”
Gu talked about her experience recognizing mental illness in the context of physical injury.
“I had a great week of Frosh, learned how to kayak, it was great, it was fine. And then on the second day of school I got hit by a car and I got a concussion,” she said.
“Ninety per cent of concussions recover within two weeks, but ten per cent of them go longer than that, and when that happens it’s called post-concussion syndrome,” Gu explained. “And with that came a lot of horrible moments […] always just wondering if life is worth it.”
However, she had difficulty recognizing her mental illness because she thought it conflicted with her identity.
“I had become known as this fun jokester: super ambitious but also super goofy,” she elaborated. “My last name is Gu, people call me Gu, [friends] don’t call me by my first name just because [Gu] is more indicative of who I am as a person. […] If I told anyone that I was going through this then suddenly I wouldn’t be Gu anymore. I would have to become Alison, and I really didn’t want to become Alison.”
Gu also touched on the challenges that being a Floor Fellow poses to her mental health.
“Working as a Floor Fellow was more tumultuous that I realized because of how you can actually never have a consistent lifestyle,” she said.“You’re not eating well because [cafeteria] food sucks. You’re not sleeping well because first years are loud. The things that you deal with are pretty heavy. I never really understood the term emotional labor until I became a Floor Fellow.”
Bray told his story of developing mental illness in tandem with a life-threatening case of Ulcerative Colitis. “It’s a gastrointestinal disease, an autoimmune disorder,” he explained.
“Your large intestine thinks there’s something in your body that’s not there, and then starts to self destruct,” he said. “So I got my colon removed, I had to miss the end of my junior year of high school to get a bunch of surgeries.”
In his time off after high school, he developed severe depression, which cropped up again in his second year at McGill.
“I didn’t have any motivation to do anything, and I was in counselling and that wasn’t working. Somehow I made it through the year,” he recalled.
When he returned home, he had to have another series of operations. During treatment, his doctors came to him with shocking new developments.
“I learned that that they had hypothesized that one of the reasons I was so depressed was because your colon is responsible for secreting 85 to 90 per cent of your body’s serotonin, and that’s a really crucial hormone for mental health,” he explained. “When I had my surgeries there wasn’t enough of this research out for it to be something the surgeons would tell you about. I’m not even sure if they do to this day.”
His physical health continued to suffer and he developed a hernia.
“When I was recovering from my hernia surgery, I was diagnosed with PTSD. […] I was really dumbfounded because I just thought […] I haven’t fought in Iraq or anything. […] But then I started to look into the symptoms of it, how it develops, and realized I had everything that people with PTSD have.”
“You can develop PTSD from any traumatic experience, it’s a disease that’s often stigmatized,” he continued.
Wooster related a similar experience in which severe physical illness had effects on her mental health: “My mental health hit its lowest over the summer when, spoiler alert, I was diagnosed with cancer. I ended up having to drop out of McGill and move back home for four months.”
“When you’re a cancer patient or when you’re physically ill no one asks about your mental health,” she recalled. “Over these past few months I really learned how closely interrelated they are, and also things that are just like coping mechanisms, like if I wanted to go out for a run, I couldn’t.”
Gu noted that mental illness is still a struggle for people who have perfect physical health.
“I think it’s important to remember that while all three of us were kind of triggered by very serious health conditions, you can also have mental illness for a reason that doesn’t seem like a reason,” she clarified. “You don’t need a reason to feel depressed. Part of the frustration for me in the beginning, part of my depression, was that I felt like I had no reason. That was something I really gave myself crap for.”
Gu continued by discussing the benefits and shortcomings of therapy as a treatment for mental illness: “Talking about easy stuff […] can be really important and can kind of get the ball rolling to start that conversation, so you don’t jump into it by saying ‘I am dealing with horrible depression.’”
“Therapy doesn’t work for everyone,” she said, “but it also doesn’t work if you really don’t go into it with an open mind. And also sometimes it just doesn’t work because of who you’re matched with.”
“As counter-intuitive as it sounds,” she continued, “I think that sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger about it because they don’t have all these preconceived notions about who you are. And that’s why a therapist can be very cathartic.”
Wooster explained how sharing her experience had been a way of healing: “[I wrote] a blog post talking about all my personal issues with mental health and everything. [..] My mother who had been a big support was like, ‘Do you really want to put that on Facebook? Think about employers.’ What if your aunts and uncles see this.’ That was really a step back. I was like, ‘Mom this is really something I need to do for myself.’”
“I was brought to tears by the positive response it had,” she explained. ”I had people messaging me who I hadn’t talked to in years, just being like “thank you so much. I resonate with a lot of things you say.”
With regards to how people reacted when she told them about her her mental illness, Wooster said, “For every shitty response you get from someone there’s a million great responses.”
A previous version of this article stated that one of the panelists was Alyssa Rooster. In fact, her last name is Wooster. It also stated that Wooster talked about how the university experience exacerbated her depression. In fact it was an anxiety disorder. The Daily regrets these errors.
The Daily has also updated the article to provide further context regarding Wooster’s last quote.