Letters to the Editor / Opinion

The Reality of Mental Illness: University Edition

I’m diagnosed with a variety of psychiatric conditions: bipolar I disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, ADHD and a learning disability called dyscalculia. As a teenager I battled anorexia nervosa. I’ve been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward three times since the age of 14, tried over 30 different kinds of psychotropic medication (most of which didn’t work) and self-harmed. I’ve shamelessly sobbed in public for no reason, stayed awake for days on end without stimulants (including caffeine), bled, bruised myself, screamed at strangers, believed I was thinking someone else’s thoughts, blacked out drunk to escape my mind, hurt people I loved and seriously contemplated suicide. Electroconvulsive therapy is a likely treatment option for my next major depressive episode. At 21, I had a voluntary tubal ligation because I feared that I would become pregnant on medications that cause severe birth defects. That being said, my life is good. I come from a loving, middle-class family and I have reliable, caring friends. It’s the hand I was dealt, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m disclosing this very personal (and obviously unflattering) information because I’m tired of the shame and stigma that surround mental illness. Actually, I’m really fucking sick of it. I want other students who are in my position to know that they aren’t alone and that at least one other person on this campus understands what it’s like to attend college while living (and often struggling) with a serious psychiatric condition.

From my perspective, the most common misconception about mental illness is that it’s some sort of affectation. Many people seem to think it’s something we choose because we want attention, that we want others to make our lives “easier” with disability accommodations, or that we like the idea of being perceived as “dark and tortured.” For my generation, I feel that the stigma attached to mental illness is largely an issue of ableism. During past manic and mixed episodes (when my cognitive processes are severely disturbed) people have told me to exercise and eat a more nutritious diet, as if swimming laps and consuming protein will automatically fix my brain chemistry. People who give this type of advice are under the false impression that my emotional instability, crawling skin and racing thoughts are a result of poor lifestyle choices. They are wrong.

Experiencing a bipolar episode is a lot like having the flu — I can’t take care of myself, and for the most part, I can’t control my illness. I can take preventative measures but ultimately what goes up must come crashing down, and it’s often a matter of weathering the storm, waiting for symptoms to pass. It’s all I can do to keep myself out of the hospital and in school when I lose stability. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I don’t bathe, I isolate myself. Walking to the mailbox becomes a daunting task. I can’t find the will to tie my shoelaces so I wear bright purple rain boots on hot, sunny days. My limbs are heavy, my thoughts disorganized and maddening. Scariest of all, these episodes often come on without warning, develop over the course of a week and leave damage that sometimes lasts months or years. The only solution that even makes a dent in my mental health problems is a medication regimen consisting of mind-numbing lithium, anticonvulsants, benzodiazepines and occasionally antipsychotics. If it were possible to remedy mental health problems with diet and exercise, I wouldn’t have issues in the first place.

Mentally ill students can’t just “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” We don’t want attention. We do everything we can to get through the day, hoping, praying, that we stay stable long enough to complete our courses and earn our degrees. We hide our scars, prescription bottles, medication-induced tremors. We rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act to cover our asses in the event that something goes wrong and we need to take a leave of absence without academic penalty. We work hard to conceal our unpredictable and unstable brains for fear of being thought of as “lazy,” “self-indulgent” and “crazy.” Worst of all, should we reveal an ounce of weakness, we might be told — despite our good grades, resilience and other accomplishments — that we “just aren’t cut out for university life.”

I am privileged to have had the opportunity to attend college. Sixty years ago I would have been institutionalized with no hope for a future. I would’ve been expected to bag groceries for a living. Today, people like me are doctors, lawyers, academicians, artists, authors, librarians and nurses. You walk past us on campus all the time. We are elusive, yet omnipresent. If you met me, you would have no idea. I’m intelligent, vivacious, strong, stubborn and tender-hearted. At first glance, I am anything but mentally ill. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll realize that everyone has a story. This is mine. All I’m asking is that you recognize, reader, that psychiatric conditions are legitimate medical problems. Next time, please think before you judge.

Leslie Purdie is a fourth-year cultural anthropology major.

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8 Comments

  1. Leslie–

    Thank you so much for your bold article. I, too, was a student at UCSB, also suffering debilitating anxiety and depression. (I won’t go into the specifics; you’ve already articulated them far too clearly.) Being at UCSB was the first time (and place) in my life that I was able to finally talk about my struggles with mental illness, and really learn to live with them. For that I thank all of the caring staff at Student Health (with special thanks to Louise Ousley!) I would not be alive today without them.

    Hang in there, because things don’t necessarily get easier after you graduate– I have been out of school for 8 years now, and still struggle with some of the same issues you mentioned. But learning ways to cope with it, ways that work for YOU, will be the best thing you can do for yourself while in college.

    I commend you for speaking out, and wish you all the best.

  2. Jeanne Stanford, PhD says:

    Dear Leslie-
    Thank you so much for sharing your personal struggles and triumphs. Thank you for being such a strong advocate for those living with medical conditions, including psychiatric ones. Every time someone puts a real face to mental health issues, it can help reduce the stigma about seeking help. As the Director of Counseling Services here at UCSB, I want you and others to know that we have a strong group program at Counseling Services. In fact we offer a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy group for anxiety and depression which is quite popular. Whether you want to start your own group, join existing student led groups for mental health advocacy, or participate in groups at Counseling Services, I hope that you continue to be the “intelligent, vivacious, strong” woman who was brave enough to share her self with us. If I may, I would like to thank you on behalf of all the students who have not found their voice as yet.

    Sincerely,
    Jeanne Stanford, Ph.D.
    Director, Counseling Services
    UCSB

  3. Dear Leslie,

    You have been an amazing, courageous, wonderful person, your entire life. You have a kind heart, a fighter’s spirit, and tremendous intellect. The beauty you add to this world is immeasurable. I love you, your mother loves you, your entire family loves you. We support you in everything you do, and in the decisions you make. That’s what families do. We don’t hide our problems and pretend as if they don’t exist. You stand for something big in this world Leslie and it is important that you continue to bring your message to the forefront of society. The more we educate the ignorant, the more we challenge those who use terms like ”she’s so bipolar” as though it is a choice and something bad, and the more you speak about what you believe, the better our world will be. I applaud you Leslie.

    Jeff Purdie (Dad)

  4. Dear Leslie,

    Thank you for writing this article. I relate to you completely. Some people get it, some don’t. Some people say ignorant things to me like “your doctor’s are stupid, the only thing wrong with you is all the medication you take. You should just stop taking it and you would be fine.” Are you kidding me? I had symptoms of bipolar disorder in my early teens. I didn’t start seeking treatment until I was 24. I am now 40. I have also recently gone back to school and know what a challenge that can be. Just this past semester in the midst of finals I had a terrible manic episode and was almost hospitalized. That was mid December. Now, mid January I have come crashing down and am in the midst of a dark depression. I don’t have the will to get out of bed, go to the grocery store or walk my dog. Thank God I have a roommate. I sleep all day and am up all night. I know that this too shall pass. I too do not disclose to very many people my illness due to ignorant comments and opinions.

  5. Dear Leslie:
    Thank you so much for writing this article. You are a true hero and should be commended for your bravery & advocacy. I am the founder & President of International Bipolar Foundation. We are based in San Diego, but have a global reach.

    I would love to speak to you more about your possibly getting involved with our organization. Could you please send me an em to address provided?

    Russ Federman, who commented above, was one of our guest lecturers last fall. Hios book about college & bp is very good.

    I look forward to hearing from you!
    Muffy

  6. Dear Leslie,

    This is a superbly crafted, beautifully honest piece. Thank you for sharing very important information and your uniquely wise and bold viewpoint based on your experiences. Nothing is more valuable for others seeking support and knowledge relating to psychiatric challenges.

  7. Leslie -

    I came across your Letter To The Editor through the daily Google News alert I receive on bipolar disorder.

    For the past five years I’ve been leading a bipolar student support group at the University of Virginia. Of all that we do with bipolar students, the group has been one of the most importent aspects of our overall treatment approach. In fact, last year we found that we went through an entire academic year without one bipolar-related medical withdwawal, which in my 20+ yrs of university experience is pretty unusual.

    If UC Santa Barbara doesn’t already have one in place, I suggest you speak with the Counseling Center Director and see if he/she is willing to help get one off the ground. Believe me, regularly meeting with other students who can understand and relate to the unique challenges you face can make a world of difference.

    Russ Federman, Ph.D.
    Director, Counseling and Psychological Services
    University of Virginia

    • Dear Dr. Federman,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my article. I have taken your suggestions to heart and am going to look into starting a support group for UCSB students.
      I own (and love) Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult’s Guide to Dealing with Bipolar Disorder. It was the first bipolar-related book I ever read that I felt was written realistically, with my needs as a college student in mind. Thank you so much for that- it’s sitting on my shelf in my bedroom and continues to serve as a valuable guide.
      Again, thank you so much for reading my article and offering helpful suggestions.

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