Not so uncommon illnesses

BY REBECCA RAMSEY
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 23, 2002

Imagine that you are stuck in a bubble that cannot be popped, no matter how hard you try. No one, including yourself, understands the way you feel and why you feel that way. Similarly, people with mental illness can feel trapped and alone. It is difficult to talk to someone who cannot relate to illness and when anxiety disorders and depression are seen as taboo.

Paul Wong
REBECCA SAHN/Daily
Cara Sandelands, an RC senior, describes a panic attack as feeling "disconnected from the world."

"People need to see depression and mental illness as common and treatable," said Sarah Newlin, education coordinator of the University's Depression Center. Newlin, who conducts free screenings, noted that "There is a stigma attached to getting help for depression."

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, mental health problems affect one in every five young people at any given time. The age of onset for anxiety disorders and depression explains why so many college students are affected.

"Anxiety disorders show up in late adolescence and early adulthood. Reasons for this are still unknown," said Joseph Himle, Ph.D., assistant clinical prof. and associate director of the University Anxiety Disorders Program.

"College students of this age are exposed to many new and stressful experiences, such as leaving home for the first time, getting jobs and securing new relationships," he added. Similarly, depression usually develops between the ages of 15 and 19, making college a peak time for episodes to occur.

The media is starting to pick up on the pervasiveness of mental illness by glamorizing these disorders and the people who suffer from them. Films such as "Girl Interrupted" and "A Beautiful Mind" cast popular stars as victims of mental illness and rumors that Jennifer Lopez has depression now seem almost like common knowledge. But, this glittery attention does not allow audiences affected with mental disorders to actually relate to the media depictions.

"I think its great that the media is displaying awareness, but mental illness is a very delicate topic," said Cara Sandelands, Residential College senior and general manager of Mentality, a mental illness awareness organization at the University.

"Awareness is a key to understanding, but they way in which mental illness is conveyed is so important. We need to show how it really is," Sandelands added.

The reality of anxiety disorders

Many doctors now agree that anxiety disorders are as common as depression, if not more so.

"Almost all college students experience anxiety, and most recognize that they are anxious. But when anxiety occurs often, many students don't even think that they have a disorder," Himle said.

College students may develop one of a variety of anxiety disorders, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and specific phobias. The most prevalent of these disorders is Social Phobia.

"Nearly 13 percent of the general population develop Social Phobia at some point in their life," said Himle.

A key trait of people with Social Phobia is the intense fear that others will detect their imperfections. To counter this, people avoid situations in which they are exposed to scrutiny. Stepping into a large lecture hall may be a frightful experience and those with Social Phobia may suffer academically.

"Social Phobia includes the fear of making speeches, giving presentations and participating in group projects and class discussions," explained Himle. "People may develop avoidance and stop going to class altogether."

Avoidance is also a potential result of Panic Disorder. Characterized by attacks of intense anxiety that often occur in public settings, Panic Disorder can cause people to stay away from places like classrooms and restaurants.

Sandelands suffered her first panic attack at a party on her 18th birthday. After a few months of recurring attacks, she was diagnosed with Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and severe depression.

"Mental illness transformed the way I looked at everything. I was scared and my condition got to the point where I didn't want to leave my room," she said. "I was affected by an extreme feeling that I was disconnected from the world."

Unlike specific phobias, where a particular idea or thing (such as flying, heights or spiders) instills fear, Sandelands explained that Generalized Anxiety Disorder features a constant fear that is not understood or accounted for.

"I always thought that I was suddenly going to die, but I had no idea why," she said.

It is normal for people to have routine behaviors and superstitions, unless these actions are a result of obsessive thinking. Another disorder that people may suffer from is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Himle described how this disorder is characterized by recurring thoughts that are followed by compulsive behaviors.

"First, there are thoughts or worries that lead to obsessions. These could range from the fear of dirt or harm of loved ones to mistakes that could lead to consequences, such as forgetting to lock the door," he said. Second are the accompanying compulsions. These are things that dominate their lives. Repeatedly checking to see if an alarm clock is on and continuously washing your hands are examples of compulsive behavior."

Depression's domination

Established in 2001, the University opened its Depression Center as a way to help the large amount of college students who suffer from depression.

Unfortunately for overworked college students, stress triggers depression. Midterms, relationship woes and financial worries can cause one stress and destitute feelings, but a screening needs to be assessed to diagnose clinical depression.

The depression diagnosis is not merely a check for distress, but rather a combination of several symptoms.

"One of two major symptoms needs to be present: depressed moods and loss of interest in activities," Newlin explained. Next, "There are five more symptoms to look for, such as problems with sleep and concentration."

Many young adults entering college are coming to school already diagnosed for depression, yet temptations cause further problems.

"A lot of depressed college students want to stop taking their medications so they can drink alcohol, but they do not realize that alcohol makes their depression worse," Newlin said.

Left untreated, depression episodes return as a chronic illness that lasts for longer time periods with greater intensity. Depression can ultimately lead to severe consequences, even suicide. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds.

"It's normal to want a reason for why we are here," Sandelands said. "But I was suicidal because of my severe depression. The only reason why I wanted to die was to get rid of the suicidal feelings."

The treatment mentality

Fortunately, there are effective methods of treatment for mental illness. For anxiety disorders, Himle suggests that a psychological intervention of cognitive-behavioral therapy is most successful.

"Each disorder has specific components catered to their characteristics, but the one commonality is that patients are often asked to deliberately encounter what they fear," Himle said. "If an Obsessive-Compulsive patient has a fear of germs, they are encouraged to gradually expose themselves to dirt. Cognitive therapy works well too. A patient with Social Phobia would be asked to analyze the true consequences for avoiding social situations."

The University Depression Center provides screenings and recommends a combination of psychotherapy and medication, such as Paxil and Prozac, which are usually very effective in treatment of these disorders.

Sandelands believes that treatment can also come directly from within the patient, rather than only as a result of a pill.

"I exercise to feel better, and that's huge. Doctors will always prescribe psychotherapy and medications, but that doesn't allow a sense of control for the patient. Alternatives to medication such as journaling and attending support groups can be just as helpful."

Student groups have also risen to the challenge to treat mental illness. Mentality is a student organization open to anyone who desires to share experiences with mental health and illness. The members strive for the creation of expressive works of music, writing, drama, workshops and discussions to make people's experiences positive.

"With mental illness, you're labeled with a disorder," said Sandelands. "But at Mentality, if we can listen to someone's experience and relieve them, even for just five minutes, that's relief from that label."

Other goals of Mentality are the education of the public to be aware of the effects of mental illness and the final transformation the challenge the silence and stigma that surround mental illness.

To stay strong and healthy, Sandelands makes sure to stay positive and appreciate how far she has come along in her treatment. She also notes the need to be realistic.

"People with anxiety are very much in touch with reality. We know it's unreasonable to have these feelings. You just have to hope you'll pull through everything. I continually have to tell myself to trust in myself."