Monie Chan knows all too well about the struggles of depression, having once attempted to take her own life.
As an exchange student from Hong Kong, Chan struggled to assimilate into small town Minnesota culture: Her host family didn’t have Internet, cable or cell service, she lived 30 minutes outside of town and she was in a foreign country with a working knowledge of English.
“People with depression tie a knot, and they keep tying and tying until they can’t anymore,” Chan said. “At that point, the breaking point, they want to cut the rope.”
Turning to self-harming, Chan hit the lowest point in her life. She had one salvation in the form of a best friend, Michael (not actual name, changed for publication purposes).
“At my darkest point, Michael was my rock,” Chan said. “He was the reason I survived. He was able to get me out of the darkness and see the good in life.”
His supportive and upbeat demeanor made it all the more shocking when he took his own life in August.
He’s not alone.
As suicide rates continuously rise in America, health officials have begun to re-examine both the status and treatment of mental diseases in order to simultaneously inform the public and support those who need it.
Suicide has surpassed motor vehicle crashes in total deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” in May. These findings are surprising to many, especially those who may not see mental health as a major issue.
“I’m shocked to hear that suicide kills more people than car crashes,” said 19-year-old MSUM sophomore Megan Fritz. “It seems like car accidents are so much more common.”
Moreover, recent deaths have brought the issue to the forefront of discussion. Renowned California pastor and founder of the Saddleback Church, Rick Warren, lost his son to suicide this spring after a 27-year battle with bipolar disorder. In his first sermon following his son’s death, Warren discussed the stigma that surrounds mental health and how detrimental it was to his son’s very public journey.
“If you struggle with a broken brain, you should be no more ashamed than someone with a broken arm,” said Warren. “It’s not a sin to take meds. It’s not a sin to get help. You don’t need to be ashamed.”
Since it is not a tangible or physical illness, health officials say people write it off, often underestimating the intensity of the situation.
“People don’t understand mental issues, so they get freaked out when people say they have them,” said Carol Grimm, director of health and wellness at Hendrix Health Center. “Physical health is so simple: you get injured, you treat it and you’re done. Mental health is a much longer process of recovery.”
Nicole Domine is a case manager at Hendrix whose primary role is to work one-on-one with students struggling with anxiety and depression. During her tenure, she has dealt with students who are afraid of discussing their issues.
“A majority of people hide the symptoms because they feel like they are seen as weak,” Domine said. “Society doesn’t blame you when you have a physical injury; when it’s mental, you’re treated differently.”
For Chan, these fears clouded her judgment, forcing her to turn to self-harm instead of support.
“I was trapped in my own box,” Chan said. “I wanted to escape, but didn’t know how to, and I was too worried that my problems might worry others to ask for help.”
Chan believes that this was also the reason Michael never reached out for help.
“When he was upset or mad, you never knew about it. I was in that situation and I didn’t even see the signs.”
Health officials say symptoms of depression include chronic sleeping, isolation and withdrawal.
“We call it the Eeyore Syndrome,” Domine said. “Every conversation is sad, every movement is slow and they often spend all of their free time alone in their room.”
The sense of loneliness inhibits those struggling to get the help they need.
“It is so common to feel like it’s only them who feel this way,” Domine said. “But in reality, everyone knows someone who is or has struggled.”
Almost one-third of college students reported feeling depressed within the last year according to a survey conducted by the American College Health Association. Nearly one-half of students said that they experienced overwhelming anxiety.
“It’s not a simple thing,” Grimm said. “There are multiple issues going on when people battle themselves. That’s why getting help is so important.”
For Chan, reaching out to friends like Michael was the first step on her way to recovery.
“I finally turned the corner,” Chan said. “When you step out of the box, you realize how big the world is. I was able to see the good in life.”
“It truly gets better,” Grimm said. “Once you make the first reach out of the darkness, things start falling into place.”
Nonetheless, the stigma still pervades, despite efforts from people like Pastor Warren and Grimm.
“The best thing we can do is educate people,” Grimm said. “We can offer support to those struggling in order to show people that it is an issue, yes, but the issue shouldn’t be an issue.”
Grimm references national campaigns like Out of the Darkness as strong social tools to inform the populace. MSUM participated in Suicide Awareness Day on Sept. 10, urging students to wear yellow in memory of people who have taken their own lives. Students also wore yellow bracelets and were able to write messages of hope on them.
Chan did just that, with Michael’s name on one side, and a quote Michael left behind in her thoughts:
“Live for today, look forward to tomorrow and don’t forget to smile.”
BY BRIAN ASHBURN