Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, pp. 12-14
Enid Weiner: Kristin, you graduated from a four-year university program in five years and you’ve been out in the workforce for a year and a half. For people with mental illness who may have been away from school and are thinking of coming back or perhaps someone who has thought of university but doesn’t know if it is an attainable goal, what would you like to tell them? As a former student of the university where I work, I know that you were so successful in advocating for yourself; I also know that you didn’t start out that way. When I met you in your first year, you were very shy and you really came into your own as you went through school. I am wondering what kind of message you would like to send out to the readers of this journal in terms of the barriers they need to overcome in order to get through university?
Kristin Tokarsky: I think the most important thing to know is what resources exist at the university or college as far as support.
Enid: What kind of resources are you talking about?
Kristin: It runs the gamut from counselling services to peer groups to social clubs to financial aid. Academic supports such as centres for academic writing, learning skills programs, peer tutors or in-class assistance such as note-takers are all very important resources. The latter was very helpful to me at one point in my studies. Also, it’s important not to be afraid to go after something that you really want. Don’t let anybody say you can’t do it. It may well mean that you have to take a reduced course load in order to both manage your mental illness and your education. There are lots of barriers for regular students — the administration for one. On a good day, it’s hard for anyone to deal with the bureaucratic maze, especially at a large university. When you have a mental illness, it seems almost insurmountable. In that case, finding out from fellow students how they’ve dealt with things is helpful. Finding out where the offices are on campus that can help you better advocate for yourself is crucial.
Enid: How do you go about finding this information? Do you ask other students? Do you find it in literature?
Kristin: A good source of information, which more and more Canadians are accessing for support, is the web. It may be beneficial to go to the web site of the institution you wish to attend to find out about the different offices and programs that are being offered. There are email addresses of people you can contact in a very private way. I think that is important when you are dealing with issues of self-disclosure and stigma around mental illness.
Enid: Did you get any information through the student newspaper?Kristin: I didn’t personally, although I know that the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program at York advertises its program in the classified section of the student paper. However, I did write an article about my experiences as a student with a mental illness for the student newspaper. I believe that a copy of that article is on York’s web site [www.yorku.ca/cdc/pdp/index.htm]
Enid:Yes it is . . . Thinking back when you first came to university, you were a timid person and you left university a real leader. What were your thoughts and feelings about coming to university? Did you have any worries and concerns about having a mental illness and coming to university?
Kristin: I had great concerns as to whether I could handle it. One of my greatest fears was that I would have to drop out.
Enid: What do you mean ‘handle it’? Academically? Socially? Financially? Kristin: Handle it in all of those ways. But it was one of those things that I really wanted and I knew that I was going to go after it 150%, even if it meant experiencing some setbacks. I was very wise about shopping for a university that had the support services that I was looking for like the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program, a counselling department, and a medical clinic — a place where I could go to have my meds monitored was very important in managing my illness.
Enid: It’s not uncommon for people who have a psychiatric illness not to think of going into the disability office for assistance. Is that something that you would suggest, checking out the disability service office?
Kristin: For sure. I think if you are going to invest a lot of money in a post-secondary institution to get your education, you should make sure there are support services that may help you: counselling, perhaps an on-site psychiatrist, a peer support group, peer mentoring, anything like that. It is important to make sure that kind of support exists, so in times when you need it, it’s there for you.
Also, I want to talk about disclosing. It took me two years to admit that I was different from everybody else. I thought that my illness was going to go away. I thought some miraculous thing would happen and — poof! — this would be gone and I would be like everybody else, taking five courses, taking everything in stride. But there came a point where I had to accept that I had a disability and that as a person with a disability, I had the right to academic accommodations. I don’t think a lot of students get to that point of acceptance, and that can be a barrier in itself, if you are not admitting your situation to yourself.
Enid: What helped you arrive at that point?
Kristin: I think it was meeting a lot of people like myself through the student disability advocacy group on campus, ABLE YORK as well as peer support through the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program — meeting people like myself who were excelling in the university environment and also advocating for themselves.
Enid: With ABLE YORK, you had an opportunity to meet students with various kinds of disabilities, not just mental illness. Was that an eye opener for you?
Kristin: It most definitely was. I met students, not only with physical disabilities, but many others with invisible disabilities such as chronic medical conditions, learning disabilities, and so on. All of us had common barriers to face. It was empowering to know you were not alone, that other students were also facing similar struggles while still managing and excelling in their studies. I had the honour to meet many students who were trying to improve things, not only for themselves, but for other students with disabilities on campus.
Enid:They were not giving up on themselves.
Kristin: Right, they did not give up, even though they faced many barriers. I would like to tell students that if they’re going through a difficult time, it’s important to be aware that they can defer course work or drop a course. That doesn’t necessarily mean one has to withdraw from school completely. There are options.
Knowing that there are choices and resources available to you also helps you deal with your illness. Basically, it means putting a foundation beneath you, a foundation of resources — disability service providers, groups, peer mentors, academic advisors, academic tutors, social clubs and other helpful services on campus. That way, when you are struggling and you need these supports, you don’t have to scramble to try to find them, especially when you probably don’t have the energy to do so.
Enid: What about community resources outside the university? Are there any resources off campus that people should be aware of?
Kristin: There are community support services for people with mental illness across the country. I think that’s also very important — to look outside the campus and see what supports are available in the community as well. In hindsight, I should have perhaps been more aware of the resources that existed outside the school community, because when I graduated, I felt as if I was alone; as if my foundation had disappeared and I had to build it up again.
Enid: I know that you have been involved with CMHA, as an example.
Kristin: CMHA has 135 branches and divisions across Canada. I was lucky enough to get involved in a project that included increasing awareness of issues for students with mental illness. It was a national project and I learned a great deal from working in the CMHA National Office on that project [Higher Education: Promoting the Rights of Students with Disabilities — see www.cmha.ca for more information about the project].
Enid: What was your role in that project?
Kristin: I started off as a research assistant. My background when I was studying was web design. Since CMHA needed a web site to be designed for the project, I took that on; that job led to working for different projects that were operated out of the CMHA National Office and then eventually working on the CMHA web page. I am now working full-time on a project for CMHA and Health Canada that is web site-based. I was fortunate enough to be able to work part-time while I went to school. I appreciate that some people with a mental illness cannot take on both roles simultaneously. Working really showed me that I could use my skills from school, that I was capable, even though I had a mental illness. I could work and be successful, and people valued the work I did.
Enid: Yes, I remember that you were working at CMHA full-time in the summer and part-time during the year while you were a student.
Kristin: Yes, luckily I was able to carry both loads, but don’t forget I was taking a reduced course load to manage my illness.
Enid: So it seems you are recommending that students find out what is going on in their community. In your case, you got involved with CMHA and that led to employment during your degree and after.
Kristin: Yes it did. Actually, when I reflect back, it was my mental illness, in part, that led to my involvement with CMHA. I often think that having a mental illness was the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to me. It was the best thing because I wouldn’t have gotten to know so many wonderful people and have had these opportunities. Yet it was the worst thing because many times it was a constant struggle, but for the most part it has been a very positive experience.
I think back to my second year when I consciously made the decision not to let my mental illness bring me down anymore, that I was going to manage it and manage school. I decided that I wasn’t going to let it take control over me and get in the way of me realizing my dreams. There was a point when I can remember thinking, ‘Okay, this is how it is going to be from now on,’ but I also want to help other students, because I know how I felt for those first two years. If I can just help one student realize she or he has options and deserves and has a right to academic accommodations, and not be afraid to ask for them. This is as important as succeeding in school.
Enid: Agreeing to do this interview certainly shows your commitment to reaching out to the mental health community. Is there anything you want to say about the current job you have and the kind of support the Canadian Health Network offers?
Kristin: I am a project coordinator for the mental health affiliate of the Canadian Health Network (CHN). CHN is a web-based health promotion site brought to the Canadian public by Health Canada and major health organizations across the country. The CMHA National Office is the mental health affiliate for CHN, and I am working on coordinating this national, bilingual project. I work with branches of CMHA across the country to coordinate and develop the content that exists on the mental health section of the CHN site. I think CHN would be a really good resource for students who are looking for health promotion information, for example, how to deal with stress, and Mental illness. Depression. Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. Words that, prior to my own experience, meant nothing to me. Or, probably more realistically, meant ‘happens to others, to people who can’t get it together, who need to pull up their socks.’ Perhaps that’s just a general feature of illness — until it touches you or someone you love, it’s uninteresting, someone else’s problem, misconceived. But this very lack of awareness, combined with misperception, is what, in my case at least, made depression so difficult to diagnose and treat. It led to a ‘what’s wrong search’ lasting far longer than it needed to, to series after series of unnecessary diagnostic tests and, ultimately, to a much longer, more intense depressive experience. Not that diagnoses of mental health problems are trivial or made with ease. In all fairness, I was always a moody kid, sometimes displaced in dark clouds, more difficult to appease than my siblings. But I was never, as far as we were concerned, mentally ill. Abnormality just crept up, quietly tiptoeing past a threshold until, retrospectively, we seem to agree that, by my senior year of high school, I was officially suffering from some serious mental health problem. Manifesting itself in my work other mental health issues. Links exist on the CHN site to programs in the community and across the country such as support groups and help lines. [See www.canadian-health-network.ca/ 1mental_health.html].
What I want to do in the next quarter is visit universities and hand out pamphlets in order to make students aware that this resource exists. CHN is unique in that all the links to resources within the site are Canadian — and credible. The resources listed on the site are researched and selected based on a set of quality criteria by the CMHA, so you have that assurance of quality as well.
Enid: You are a wonderful advocate not only for yourself but your employer as well. In conclusion, what are the key points you would like readers who may be potential post-secondary education students, to learn from this interview?
Kristin: I would like to tell potential students that in times of relapse, there are options available to you; there are supports available to you. Hang in there. Get the supports you need and don’t rush through your studies. If a program is a four-year program that doesn’t mean you have to do it in four years — I did mine in five years; I have friends who did it in six, seven or more years. You really have to feel things out for yourself and just realize you don’t have to do it as fast as everybody else. You’re still going to do it and you are going to get your degree and the end result is the same.