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Dealing with depression

ELHAM NUMAN/THE VARSITY

Dealing with depression

A U of T student grapples with mental illness

Content warning: descriptions of suicide attempts and self-harm

There’s something uniquely haunting about your first panic attack. For me, it was in my dorm room at Whitney Hall in 2015. It’s truly something I cannot forget. I remember shaking vividly, gasping for breath with tears pouring down my face, and taking one sleeping pill, two sleeping pills, three sleeping pills, and then four. I did anything to snap myself out of how I was feeling. Yet, with all that I remember, the reason for the attack remains a mystery.

Coming to U of T

Attending the University of Toronto was supposed to be my dream come true. I saw it as a rigorous academic environment that would challenge my ideas and help me grow stronger as a person. Living in residence was meant to boost my social game beyond where I was in high school. I was excited to meet people. I looked forward to my classes. I had a bulletin board full of postcards from student groups I wanted to join.

I did not expect that my mental illness would take these experiences from me. I did not expect to be lonely and isolated — hell, the idea of being average was terrifying to me. Yet there I was, in first year, student 1001166285 and seemingly nothing more.

The morning after my first panic attack, I begged my residence don for help. I needed answers. Major depressive disorder is something I’ve dealt with since the sixth grade, but I didn’t think it would follow me into university. I had never really felt anxious before either. Experiencing both depression and anxiety together created an overwhelming cycle of not feeling good enough and restless with the possibility of not meaning anything to anyone.

These thoughts landed me in the Health and Wellness office in February of my first year. I was diagnosed, I was medicated, and I remained in relative peace for the eight months that followed.

My second year

Living as a student in Toronto started to take its financial toll. I had my part-time job as a work-study student for St. Michael’s College, but I eventually had to take a second job at a restaurant to help support myself. Collectively, these added up to nearly 25 hours of work per week on top of my regular course load.

As many students know, the toll this kind of load takes on our mental and physical health can be extreme.

In October 2015, I had started to develop a series of medical problems that the general practitioners at Health and Wellness were unable to diagnose. For two months, I cycled between blood work, new prescriptions, MRIs, CT scans, and new diets to see if anything would ease my symptoms. I was having trouble sleeping, keeping food down, and concentrating — these feelings were frustrating, scary, and distracting. I could feel a gradual resurgence of my mental illnesses, but with greater extremes.

By November, I actively started to plan for my suicide. I felt that the abundance of medications that I was prescribed would make it fairly easy to do, and there was nothing I could do to convince myself that my life was worth anything to anyone. I started missing almost all of my classes and was bailing on social plans because of work commitments. My medications were giving me terrible side effects, and the constant trial-and-error of these drugs made it impossible for my body to ever adapt. My entire life seemed so uncertain — except for my death. This was one area where I felt I had control.

On December 1, I overdosed on my medication in the second suicide attempt of my life. I woke up the next morning understanding that I had passed out, slowly coming to the realization of what I had done. I told my best friend, and he nearly forced me to tell my doctor. I walked to my doctor in tears, feeling betrayed by my friend for making me go. I felt humiliated. I was disappointed that it did not work. I wanted it to stay a secret.

When my doctor heard what happened, I was sent to the emergency department at Mount Sinai Hospital. After a series of tests of my vital signs, I was sent into a glass-walled room that was guarded by a security officer. Other patients were walking down the hallway making eye contact with me through the glass, wondering why I was under the supervision of security. Was I dangerous to others? Did they fear I would run away if I was left alone?

After six hours of waiting in Mount Sinai, I was transported to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), where I was required to spend at least two nights. I was forced to surrender all of my property, including the pens I used to write my homework, for fear that I would use them to hurt myself. I had to give up my phone, making it impossible for me to contact my friends and family. At CAMH, I met with a series of specialists who worked with me to make sense of what happened, while providing me with the resources I needed to keep it from happening again. After two incredibly lonely and isolating nights, I was sent out the door.

U of T administration and faculty

By the time I left CAMH, U of T was approaching the winter break. I planned to go home to see my family for Christmas, hoping to start fresh in the new year. To my surprise, I returned to deal with a series of concerns from the University of Toronto’s administration, who were apparently notified of my suicide attempt.

Let me make one thing abundantly clear: removing suicidal students from campus is not new to the University of Toronto. Students have claimed to have been removed from campus for being suicidal before — this was an idea discussed by administrators as it pertained to my case.

The whole thing was very strange to me: I was called in to meet with my registrar, someone I had never met, who wanted to talk about my case. When I went, I learned that the university had struck a committee to handle my situation, which included a crisis counsellor and other people I did not know. I still have no idea how so many people learned about my suicide attempt, but the uncertainty of what would happen was terrifying. My registrar discussed the idea of me leaving for the semester, saying that the university had the option to force my departure regardless of what my decision was.

There’s something off-putting about a stranger telling you what is best for you. Despite good intentions, I was able to convince her that U of T was somewhere that I needed to stay. I needed the distraction of class and work. I needed the distraction of my friends, of extracurricular life, and of the joy I found in places like Hart House. I was lucky that this round of negotiations worked in my favour — many students in similar positions do not have that option or influence.

The discussions slowly faded. I was no longer on the university’s radar as a threat, but at the same time, I came to a position where I would never disclose that information to anyone, ever again.

The nights spent in CAMH continued to haunt me. These services are necessary and can be helpful to a lot of people, but it’s hard to view them fondly when you’re forced to go. If I entered on my own terms and could leave when I felt it was necessary, perhaps I would have viewed the situation more positively.

In March 2016, I had a series of panic attacks the night before my linear algebra midterm. I was up throughout the night contemplating suicide, I was self-harming again, and the majority of my night was spent curled up in a corner of my bedroom. As soon as Health and Wellness opened the next morning, I went to tell them what happened.

I obtained a medical note indicating that I was completely unfit to perform academic obligations. This note was rejected by my professor on the basis that I appeared healthy. If he could have seen me a few hours earlier, I’m sure the outcome would have been different. Mental illness is good at hiding itself behind a smile. It’s easy to nod and say that things are okay.

The media

My story attracted media attention from news outlets, with comments expressing both support and suspicion that I wanted to get out of an exam or that I was seeking attention. The story was picked up through a series of venting tweets. I wanted people to know what happened so that they could see how ableism manifests itself on our campus, particularly as it pertains to mental illnesses. I did not want special treatment — hell, I didn’t even expect the media to see or care. But when they messaged, I responded, because it seemed like a good way to raise awareness.

These experiences formed an integral part of my life on campus. I would not express them positively by any means, but they are things that taught me valuable life lessons and completely changed the way I view my mental illness. These are no longer experiences I try to hide. They affect my life every single day in a vast number of the decisions I make. I will acknowledge that they are a major part of who I am. But adapting to them is a process, and one that most certainly takes time.

Growing as a student, growing as a person

I am now in my fourth year of university. The past two years since my medical note was rejected have not been easy, but I’m learning to cope. I’m still experimenting with Health and Wellness services to see what the most appropriate steps are for me to take. I’m still experimenting with different medications and treatments. I’m still trying to find the right psychiatrists to help me along the way. I have friends who have learned to recognize the onset of my symptoms and know what it takes to help get me back on track. For this, I’m eternally grateful.

It’s not easy to deal with mental illness as a student on campus. It’s especially difficult to be a suicidal student on campus. From time to time, the thought of ending my life still comes to my mind, but it’s greatly surpassed by the idea of how much more my life has to offer. I’m 21 years old now. There’s a lot I have left to see, a lot left to do, and a lot of love and friendship to build along the way. Sharing my story helps me cope, but it also serves as a reminder that the university is not always friendly to students with mental illness. It’s approximated that around 20 per cent of Canadians struggle with mental health problems, and these numbers are even more amplified for racialized and marginalized people. We must do more.

Sure, I’m still student 1001166285. I’m also a student with major depressive disorder and suicidal tendencies. I’m a student who can get very bad panic attacks triggered by my academics and social relationships. But I’m also a student who is getting better. I’m a student learning to cope. I’m a student who has once again found interest and excitement in my life. I’m a student who still struggles from time to time, but I’ll keep on moving on.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with depression or suicide, information and resources can be found at https://suicideprevention.ca.