You Are Not Alone: Untold Stories of Mental Illness at ND

Author: Maria Fahs and Andrea Vale

You Are Not Alone: Untold Stories of Mental Illness at ND

“‘How are you doing today?’ I never answer that honestly. You answer ‘fine,’ whether you’ve had the best day ever or the worst day ever. At Notre Dame, everyone has to be happy. Everyone is perfect. This is the happiest place on earth. It’s not okay to not be okay,” senior design major Hannah Chiarella says.

“But we’re not all perfect, and it’s okay to admit you had a bad day, but we’re too busy trying to cultivate this perfect experience,” Chiarella says.

This drive for perfection and excellence, of well-adjustment, happiness and an appearance of effortlessly excelling in all facets of life from social and academic, to extracurricular, athletic and dorm life is perhaps part of the reason mental health issues are on the rise among college age students, especially Notre Dame students.

According to Susan Steibe-Pasalich, director of the university counseling center (UCC), more than 25 percent of undergraduate students use the UCC at some point during their four years at Notre Dame. The utopian ideal of perfect, happy students is a myth, but a persistent one that does more harm than good.

Mental illness is widespread across the country as well. Approximately one in five adults, or 43.7 million Americans, experience a mental illness in a year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Half of chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14 and three-quarters begin by age 24, but people often wait years to seek help. Statistics show that more than 90 percent of individuals who commit suicide suffered from one or more mental illnesses.

Peter Teneriello, a finance major in the class of 2012, suffered acutely from clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder throughout his sophomore and junior years. His symptoms manifested themselves through his behavior, and his actions landed him on disciplinary probation at the end of his freshman year.

“Being on the verge of suspension at the hands of an administration that didn’t seem interested in helping me get through this period was tough. Add that to the other stresses college students face, and you had this volatile mix of things that would swing my mood up up up and down down down, pushing me into new and unforeseen disasters,” Teneriello says.

These symptoms are often what drive students to visit the UCC, though Teneriello himself did not seek treatment until after he graduated.

“The top three reasons students at Notre Dame use counseling services are anxiety, depression and academic distress. In the most recent national survey of the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors, anxiety emerges as the top reason college students across the country seek help from counseling centers,” Steibe-Pasalich says.

Urgent crisis services are utilized on almost a daily basis. Last year, there were 1,029 visits made to the Inner Resources Room, according to Steibe-Pasalich. The massage chair (for stress management) and the light box (for Seasonal Affective Disorder) are the most commonly used items, but there are many other resources ranging from games to guided breathing exercises.

According to Scholastic’s 2004 cover story, “Depression: the invisible illness afflicting Notre Dame students,” approximately eight percent of the Notre Dame student body used the UCC’s resources in a typical year. That figure has risen to 12 percent, according to the UCC’s website.

Joseph Stanfiel, assistant dean and director of undergraduate advising for the College of Arts and Letters, has noticed a similar increase in mental health issues during his 10 years at Notre Dame.

“Young people put enormous pressure on themselves,” Stanfiel says. “Something has to change.”

“At the beginning, I was tracking one or two students at the end of the semester [who are incapacitated by mental or emotional problems]. Now it’s 15 or 20 students. Towards the end of the semester, that’s half of my job” Stanfiel says.

Stanfiel echoes Chiarella’s concerns. “Everyone tells you that these are the best years of your life, so you think there’s something wrong with you if they’re not. But those people are not thinking about their difficulties during college. They’re not thinking about what they’ve forgotten.”

Ben Finan, an economics major in the class of 2014, says that it was difficult at first to recognize that what he was experiencing was diagnosable depression and anxiety.

“Before I recognized that I was suffering from depression, I started to alter my social habits,” Finan says. “I stopped drinking and went out far less, as I was more tired than I had been previously. Interactions with other students became more challenging, with a shorter temper and quicker frustration with communication issues. I am a very talkative, social person by nature, so this change was the most alarming of all to me. I started working more at my on-campus job, as it allowed me to focus on something other than my issues.”

Sarah*, (name has been changed) a freshman economics major, says that it has been hard to get others to separate her illness from her personality.

“The depression makes it very hard for me to enjoy myself while I’m out with friends, at football games or at other social events,” Sarah says. “I feel like everyone around me is so happy and having a great time, but I just feel miserable and even more isolated. There have been several days that I have decided to stay in rather than be social because the idea of having to talk to people and pretend to be interested and engaged sounds terrible. This has made it very difficult for me to make close friends so far.”

“These past couple weeks have been very lonely for me because, despite avoiding socializing, I miss having people I’m close with to confide in. Depression is isolating even when I have people who understand what I’m dealing with around to support me, so being away from that support has made it a lot harder to manage on a day to day basis,” Sarah says.

Melissa* (name has been changed), a sophomore neuroscience major, was reluctant to believe that anyone else was struggling like she was when she first arrived at Notre Dame.

“Freshman year was not a great year here. I didn’t believe that it was hard for everyone,” Melissa says. “I was so uncomfortable around people. I didn’t want to tell anyone that I didn’t feel like I was a part of this family and this community.”

Susan Gonzalez, a former Notre Dame student who left after two semesters, had similar feelings of social anxiety, coupled with major depressive disorder and cutting.

“I was sad a lot for no particular reason and I felt guilty about it. I’m at this great university with all these wonderful people and opportunities, and I felt like I had no reason to be sad. Everyone always tells ND students how lucky they are. You almost feel like it’s your own fault when you don’t feel 100 percent grateful and happy all the time,” Gonzalez says.

Chiarella felt the same frustration when she arrived at Notre Dame.

“I had always wanted to go to Notre Dame. It was so difficult because this is the place I’ve always wanted and this has been the hardest time in my life. It’s still not magical,” she says.

Chiarella has had depression issues since high school and it runs in her family, but for Melissa, it was a new experience. They, like many other students, have dealt with the thought of not returning to campus. Though neither of them left campus or took time away, some of their peers have taken a semester or year away. For some, Notre Dame is the right place to be in the long run, but not for all students.


Leaving Notre Dame

All roads seem to lead to Notre Dame, but Notre Dame is not always the best place for someone to be, as Susan Gonzalez found out during her two semesters at Notre Dame. She had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety in 2009, but her ability to cope continued to worsen and she tried to commit suicide in 2011.

According to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds. It is the 10th leading cause of death for all ages as of the most recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control in 2013. Approximately 7.4 percent of adults aged 18 to 25 have reported having serious thoughts about suicide, the highest percentage among groups of adults.

Among high school students, 17 percent have seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months. This figure is particularly relevant when considering that many college freshmen are only a few months out of high school. Females tend to be more likely than males to have suicidal thoughts, but males are nearly four times more likely to commit suicide.

Suicide claims the lives of more than 1,100 college students each year, according to Active Minds, the group that sponsors Send Silence Packing, which is a display of 1,100 backpacks, representing the number of students lost to suicide each year. Personal stories are attached to the backpacks. This year’s display took place on Sept. 23 on South Quad in front of O’Shaughnessy Hall.

Gonzalez was committed to a hospital for 72 hours after she attempted to take her life and had to pack up her belongings and drop her classes in a matter of days.

“It’s really overwhelming and I almost wish ND had a better exit strategy for students in these types of situations because all this had to happen immediately after I left the mental hospital,” Gonzalez says. “So it’s just extreme, endless pain. I said goodbye to my closest friends in a hotel room. It was surreal. I knew I wouldn’t be able to apply to ND for a year (that’s a rule they have after incidents like this). It was heartbreaking knowing I wouldn’t be back for at least a year. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”


Making a Change

Ultimately, it was a descending GPA, and not direct recognition of his illness, that caused Finan to take an academic, and not medical, leave from Notre Dame.

“I left ND for a semester after struggling with academics for two consecutive semesters,” he says. “I was unaware of the ongoing mental issues during the entirety of the first semester [spring of junior year] in which I had trouble focusing and started to withdraw from social settings. By the time that I realized I needed help, it was late September of the second semester.”

Finan eventually decided to utilize campus resources.

“I finally reached out to the UCC, who told me that unless it was an emergency, it would be a little over two weeks until I could be seen. In the weeks before reaching out and the several weeks until I was seen, my mental health worsened significantly,” Finan says.

“The UCC and the therapist that I was setup with were helpful. By the time that I was diagnosed and we began to work on steps for improvement, however, I was failing two classes and unable to focus on homework or outside engagements. It became clear that my academics would be unable to recover in time to come off of probation, and began exploring a medical withdrawal. Unfortunately, for an academic leave of absence, the policy was a one-year minimum departure, while an academic dismissal was only a one semester leave of absence,” Finan says.

Finan decided to finish the semester to salvage some of his credits, thereby allowing him to only leave for the spring semester. He credits the Arts and Letters Dean’s Office with helping him through the process of selecting another university to take courses at and how to transfer the appropriate credits.

Senior theology and Arts and Letters pre-health supplemental major Maggie Skoch took a year away from Notre Dame to deal with her generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder and now serves as a resident assistant in Breen-Phillips Hall.

“I took a medical withdrawal to properly address my health during my sophomore year and returned to Notre Dame with a newfound passion for mental health issues,” Skoch says.  “At the time, I struggled to reconcile with the medical withdrawal, with the year away from Notre Dame, the place I loved so dearly, and with the fact that I would graduate a year later than planned. However, this experience, in which I chose to prioritize my health, has utterly changed every facet of my life in powerful and positive ways.”

“The process of withdrawing and being readmitted to Notre Dame was certainly difficult on many levels. It was an emotional decision with a lot of implications, such as not being able to graduate with the friends I made during my first year. However, I would never change the decision I made if I could do it all over again. It changed my life for the better in innumerable ways and my health was the priority with respect to the decision to withdraw,” Skoch says.

Teneriello also recognized that he needed to prioritize his health, but he did not seek treatment until after finishing school.

“A year after I graduated, I still found myself bouncing in and out of depression. I knew that I needed to get help, or else I’d lose my twenties (or maybe even my life) to depression and anxiety. So then I saw a therapist for a year, and that helped a lot,” Teneriello says.

Teneriello currently works as an investment analyst at the Texas Permanent School Fund. Skoch is now the student intern to the Associate Vice President for Student Services, Bill Stackman, who leads the Health and Wellness Unit as part of the Division of Student Affairs.

It includes seven areas: University Health Services (UHS), the University Counseling Center (UCC), the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being (McWell), the CARE Consultants, Disability Services, Graduate Student Life and Title-IX/Sexual Assault Resources.


Returning to Notre Dame

Gonzalez was accepted back to Notre Dame in the spring of 2012 after a year away, but financial reasons delayed her return until the fall of 2012. “I was really proud of myself, for not giving up on ND, not giving up on people, not giving up on myself. I remember when I saw the dome in the distance—I knew I would be okay no matter what,” Gonzalez says.

Her return to Notre Dame was an accomplishment, but she was still struggling.

“After a semester back, I was doing okay, but not great,” Gonzalez says. “My grades were sliding and I felt the depression and anxiety getting worse again. So as much as I love Notre Dame, it just wasn’t worth any more mental suffering.”

“Some kids can go to ND with mental health issues and be just fine, and that’s awesome. I just wasn’t one of those students. I tried to do too much — working, full load of classes, tons of extracurriculars— and it just wasn’t for me. I was getting physically sick from how stressed I was, and I didn’t want to slide back down that hole again,” Gonzalez says.

After considering her options, she left Notre Dame for good, and began studying mass communication at the University of Texas-Pan American and graduated in 2014.

“I realized that I need to come first. Not grades, not work, not anything. If I was feeling stressed or overwhelmed, I knew I needed ‘me time’ and actually took it. I learned to not be so hard on myself. I’m a perfectionist and that’s just such a dangerous mindset, especially if you have mental health issues. I’m my own worst critic, so I try to be kinder to myself,” Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez has pursued journalism since graduating, freelancing as a reporter and photographer for local newspapers before landing an internship at Chalkbeat, an education news outlet. She is now teaching at a non-profit called KidsTech in Colorado, which offers computer and tech classes for underprivileged schools.

Finan applied for reentrance into Notre Dame in May 2013 and was accepted. He returned and reclassified as a senior during the fall of 2013 and graduated in May 2014, on time. He has since moved to Denver and now works for a non-profit.


NAMI-ND

Last year, Skoch tried to help improve awareness of mental health issues on campus, which she did as president of NAMI-ND, the Notre Dame chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

During her tenure as president, Maggie says, “Our primary goal was to expand the club so as to better fulfill our club’s mission of raising mental health awareness, educating the Notre Dame community and promoting Notre Dame services and resources.”

That goal is being furthered by the club this year under junior psychology and Spanish major Katie Paige, the current president of NAMI-ND. Though Paige has not personally fought a mental illness, she has watched her younger sister struggle with mental health issues.

“This has been something that’s really near and dear to my heart. I’ve had countless close friends go through it,” Paige says. “As a freshman, I felt so overwhelmed by what a huge issue mental illness is. I was so upset, wondering why is there no help? Why is nobody doing anything? So I started to get involved and discovered that there are so many people trying to help. We need to get the word out there and direct people to those resources.”

Part of NAMI-ND’s goal is to raise awareness, which they are doing through organized events like Send Silence Packing for suicide awareness and Irish State of Mind, which is a week of awareness for mental illness, and smaller events like Espresso Your Mind, where students can come together to drink coffee and continue conversations about mental illness once or twice a month.

Irish State of Mind, coinciding with the national mental illness recognition week, began on Friday, Oct. 2 with lighting the library green, the color for mental illness awareness. Events for the week ranged from a dinner and discussion with Steibe-Pasalich about resources available to students on campus, to students sharing their own stories on the ways in which mental illness has affected their lives at “In Our Own Words,” to a healing mass at the grotto.

Remaining events include “A Night of Hope with Kevin Breel,” where the Tedx speaker talks about his own struggles with depression and shares his message of hope. The week concludes with a free screening of Inside Out.


Continuing the Conversation

Chiarella’s senior thesis project is looking at how it is possible to address mental health issues on college campuses through the power of design. One of her main goals is educating students about mental illness and empowering them to help others who may need support.

“A lot of the issues we deal with are communication issues,” Chiarella says. “We need to start the conversation and create more awareness of resources that are available for everyone and that don’t necessarily require a trip to the counseling center.”

“Notre Dame hasn’t helped me specifically yet,” Sarah says. “However, I do really appreciate the movement of acceptance of mental illness on campus. It’s very reassuring to know that I do have options for treatment and that I will not be ostracized or disregarded if I choose to seek help through Notre Dame.”

Among those resources are the CARE Consultants, which are part of the CARE (Campus Assessment Response and Education) Team. According to their website, the team “meets weekly to assess the health and safety of the student and the campus community and recommends services and resources that will support the student’s ability to succeed at the university.”  If you are worried about a friend, you can submit an online referral form at http://care.nd.edu.

Despite the help that the UCC and Arts and Letters Dean’s Office provided, Finan wished that there had been “more availability of crisis counseling and more clear training for dorm staff to identify mental health issues and get students the help that they need. I had several conversations with hall staff, both RAs and ARs, and although all offered their continued help and counsel, none flagged my symptoms as potential depression or other mental health concerns.”

“Ask for help from whoever you trust —family, friends, professionals, anyone around you,” he says. “Until you ask for help, you cannot begin to recover fully. Notre Dame has lots of resources available, but you have to know where to look for it and actively seek it out. Help will not come to you.”

Chiarella almost withdrew from Notre Dame. She went through different antidepressants and counseling but could not find the right fit. Like Finan, the timeline for help was also slower than she needed.

“The waiting was difficult. It wasn’t happening fast enough, or not as fast as I needed to get meds changed. I was at my worst,” Chiarella says.

Eventually, her mom came to campus to talk about how to finish the semester, and she worked with case managers from the CARE Team. “I wound up finishing everything, working with case managers from the CARE group. They put you in touch with the resources you need, help you academically and find you the help you need, whether that’s on campus or office,” Chiarella says.

She credits them with being her academic support system, helping her talk to professors and figuring everything out. Chiarella also says she could not have made it through without the support of her friends, who were there throughout everything. Last spring, despite her difficulties, Chiarella knew she wanted to focus on mental health issues and design.

“I was falling apart, crying for help on this campus, and I didn’t know where to turn. I know it’s not just me, but it felt like it was because no one was talking about it. It feels like isolated individual experiences, rather than community helping each other. But other students are like me, and I want everyone to see what other people can do to help people like me,” Chiarella says.

“I help the helpers. I got the help I needed, but my friends, they didn’t know how to help, and they needed help too.”


How to Help

Formal resources are an important part of treating and seeking help for a mental health issue, but personal support networks are also crucial for recovery.

“Providing a listening ear, guiding a loved one to the appropriate resources, and comforting a loved one throughout their journey are all key ways to show support. Each of these stem from one major principle: you cannot take away the suffering of your loved one, but you can certainly enter into their pain and walk the journey with them,” Skoch says.  “This does not mean that you should carry their burden or that you can ‘fix’ what is wrong. It simply emphasizes the importance of being present to the loved one.”

Gonzalez also emphasizes that the role of a friend is not to cure someone fighting a mental illness, but that help is so important.

“Listen. Sometimes, someone just needs a good cry and someone to hug them. You don’t have to say everything is alright, because it clearly is not. And you don’t have to ‘fix them.’ They aren’t broken,” Gonzalez says.

“Support them in any way they ask or even if they don’t ask. Sometimes people with mental illness don’t want to reach out for help. So reach out for them,” Gonzalez says. “Help them get the bare necessities for their physical well-being. Don’t abandon them, calm them, be with them, get them other help if you can’t provide it. They are suffering. If you can ease it, you should. Mental illness can’t be cured, but it can be helped.”

Sarah noted that peers should approach helping friends through illness by recognizing that their struggles are separate from their identity.

“Keep in mind that someone suffering from a mental illness is not just a ‘mentally ill person’,” she says. “I’ve always been very cautious about opening up about my depression because I’m afraid that once I do, the person I tell will only see that part of me. There is a lot more to the person than what they are dealing with, and they deserve the dignity of being treated with normalcy.”

Steibe-Pasalich echoes the importance of having a personal support system.

“During 2014-2015, approximately half of the consultations that came to the UCC, including walk-ins, warm line calls or after-hours contacts, were from third parties concerned about someone else. Also, close to half of the students who requested UCC services during that same time period reported that someone had suggested to them that they seek services. I think this latter fact is a positive testimony to a caring campus community,” Steibe-Pasalich says.

Both Chiarella and Finan also emphasize that the most important thing is for friends to just be there.

“Love above all other things. Sometimes that’s hard. It can be frustrating, and you might feel like they’re bringing you down or that they aren’t listening, but you have to continue to care. Your support matters more than anything. Even if it’s really hard or draining, it can make a difference in the end. It’s persistence and genuine caring that can make a tough situation better” Chiarella says.

“Look. Listen. Help,” Finan says. “When you aren’t a professional, don’t feel obligated to try to do much more than refer someone to get the help they need. But listen to those that are trying to share, help by engaging the person in a fun or low-key activity. Keep some semblance of normalcy … If you are concerned about the person’s physical well-being, talk to someone that can help. Just do whatever you can to try to make things better. It is the little things that make anyone’s day, but especially when it seems that nothing else is going your way, someone else’s kindness can go a really long way.”

If we are guilty of anything, Chiarella says, it’s how much we care.

“At Notre Dame we care too much and that’s great, “ Chiarella says. “In the end, it’s how we care, and what we can do as a community that will help make a difference.”


Hannah Chiarella is collecting anonymous stories about mental illness at Notre Dame for her senior thesis. If you have any personal experiences with a mental illness or with watching a loved one experience a mental illness at Notre Dame, please share your story at http://goo.gl/forms/zlqwdojwUP.