Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 20-21
I used to cut myself. Daily. Sometimes several times a day. It started in the fifth grade. I felt worthless and ugly, inside and out. I felt as though there was a monster growing inside of me, and when I found myself up against even the slightest barrier to what I wanted, the monster took over. Some days, I wouldn’t remember what made me want to cut, or scratch, or bash my hand with a hammer. It was like I would black out, and wouldn’t wake up until I was covered in my own blood.
I took a lot of drugs, trying to numb my insecurities about the “crazy thoughts” I had. Thoughts that made me want to hurt myself. Thoughts consumed with rage or desire to get messed up. I took anything I could find: weed, mushrooms, Ritalin, ecstasy, cocaine, crystal meth; I crushed leftover painkillers and antidepressants, mixing the powders and carrying them around to snort every time I needed a ‘pick me up.’
Until I started to scare myself.
It took two horrifying events when I was in 12th grade before I sheepishly walked into my high school social worker’s office. The first, a cut that went too deep, was my response to a failed relationship with a man who realized he was gay. I bled for two days. I still have a scar of an “F” on my shin—the only part that remains of the “FAG” I carved in my flesh.
Just one month later, I found myself covered in my own vomit on the bathroom floor at a rave. I’d overdosed on ecstasy. Slipping in and out of consciousness, I expected to die. But, by some miracle, I walked out alive in the morning.
After a whirlwind week in which I began to share my painful secret with my friends and family, I started counselling with the school social worker and my family physician, who specializes in psychiatry. I started taking Effexor (commonly prescribed for major depressive disorder) once a day. This improved my mood, but caused constant nausea and vomiting. Add the intense boredom and irritability that arose from my resolve to quit using street drugs, and it’s a wonder I made it through those first few weeks.
However, knowing I had just one semester left of high school to pull up my grades got me through the tough times. The prospect of possibly moving away to university and a new life was my saving grace.
Fast-forward four years. I am in my final semester of the social work program at the University of Windsor, with a minor in psychology. With a little perseverance, I’ll be studying at the master’s level next September. I work part-time in a bar, and live with a good friend.
I don’t take prescription medication any more. I know many other students who take Effexor and are doing great, but it didn’t work for me.
I haven’t done street drugs in four years, and I haven’t cut myself in over three years. I do think about it, but I never want to go back to the life I once lived.
I’ve been able to find natural ways of coping with my disordered thinking. I took up running and find great solace in my time spent alone, pounding the pavement. I’m training for my first full marathon in the fall, and look forward to the high I’ll get when I cross that finish line—a high I’m sure will be better than any narcotic.
All too common—suffering in silence
I wouldn’t be surprised to find that my story is similar to those of countless other students. What does surprise me, though, is how few people are willing to share their story.
Mental illness isn’t dirty, smelly, crazy or violent. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s something we need to start talking about. It’s the engineering student who feels worthless and sad for such a long period of time that she stops getting out of bed in the morning; the man whose anxieties keep him from being in large social situations, preventing him from attending school. It’s the thousands of young people who suffered in silence; who felt they had no choice but to take their own lives.
Active Minds: creating change
There is a movement of young people working tirelessly to change the way our generation approaches the subject of mental illness. In less than five years, Active Minds Inc. has inspired over 100 chapters of student-led groups that promote mental health awareness, education and advocacy on college and university campuses across North America. It was founded by former student Alison Malmon, who lost her brother to suicide after he became depressed and started hearing voices while at college.
Active Minds Inc., a non-profit umbrella organization based in Washington DC, provides various levels of support to student mental health advocates. Chapter leaders receive program ideas and materials such as informational brochures, posters, T-shirts and giveaway items. There is e-mail and telephone support for student leaders looking to start a chapter, increase membership, create partnerships with community agencies and undertake creative programming.
The groups vary in size, membership and activity on campus, but there is consensus on one matter: no student should suffer the effects of mental illness in silence. Advertising, media and informational campaigns, and special events such as movie nights, guest speakers, National Stress Out Day, A Day Without Stigma, a Stomp Out Stigma Run and an annual conference aim to get people talking about mental illness. They’re designed to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and link students with agencies in the community for support.
My time as president of Active Minds has been a real eye opener. Students regularly come up to tell me that they, too, have been affected by mental illness in some way. And many of my peers in Social Work have started to follow my lead by sharing their personal experiences during class discussion. It’s been my experience that most students have either been diagnosed with mental illness, have a loved one with mental illness, or have lost someone to suicide.
I’ve always believed that young people hold an incredible amount of power, and can create social change. The passion that comes from the people involved in the Active Minds mission is going to open up the lines of communication about mental illness for our generation, and for generations to come.
About the author
Amanda is in her fourth year of the bachelor’s program in Social Work at the University of Windsor in Ontario. She is President of Active Minds Windsor and the Active Minds Inc. Student Advisory Committee