Daniel Falco Dawson wears a bracelet that he received from a girl while he was in the hospital after thinking of suicide. Dawson later became an officer for Active Minds at the UW. Photo by Sara Koopai
At the lowest point of his depression last winter, senior Daniel Dawson remembers even getting out of bed to be impossible.
“I slept a lot,” the soft-spoken, tall biology major said.
Most days he’d spend alone in his Haggett Hall room and avoid contact with other people, even his own roommate. He no longer enjoyed boxing, a sport he’d loved since high school. He stopped answering his phone. Often, he’d go a week without showering or changing his clothes.
“I would basically isolate myself,” he said.
Few people knew the full extent of his illness. It wasn’t until one particularly dark day — when Dawson contemplated suicide — that he made a phone call to his therapist.
“I basically told them I really don’t think I can do it,” he said. “It all happened pretty fast.”
At his therapist’s recommendation, Dawson sought hospitalization and spent a week at UW Medical Center receiving treatment.
“For [some] people it isn’t necessarily an illness but just an emotion,” he said. “In my case it happened to be something more than that.”
Dawson said he mostly kept his feelings to himself. When he finally chose to confide in his parents, they revealed a family history of clinical depression. And Dawson is not alone. One in 10 adults in the United States report feeling depressed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“It manifests itself differently, but for me it was basically just a breakdown of everyday living,” he said. “It wasn’t just a feeling of sadness; it interfered with basic functions.”
Now, Dawson is a member of Active Minds, a national, nonprofit organization with a branch at the UW. The group works to de-stigmatize the issue of mental illness, depression being one of the most common among college students.
Anne Wolken, vice president of Active Minds, said depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental illnesses that the group strives to address. Transitioning into college is a time when she said it’s common for clinical disorders to appear.
“Even outside of clinical [depression], just general stress and depression are really, really common,” she said. “Way more common than I think a lot of people realize.”
A 2009 National Institute of Mental Health survey found that almost 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some point during the last year.
Dawson points to his transition from high school in the Tri-Cities to the UW as one factor of his depression.
“For me, I didn’t have a lot of really good friends coming up here from high school and I wasn’t close with my parents and I always just dealt with things on my own,” he said. “Just throwing yourself into college with no way to cope is really hard.”
Active Minds holds events throughout the year to raise awareness, including an event in Red Square yesterday for the “National Day Without Stigma” when group members stomped out balloons that signified stigma that surrounds mental-health disorders. In the spring, they hand out free ice cream on “National Stress Out Day.” They also provide information about on-campus resources for students who think they might be suffering from a mental illness.
“It’s sort of an aspect of health that’s not as regularly talked about,” Wolken said. “So it’s definitely beneficial to ask for help.”
Dawson said there are a lot of pressures on young people that can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.
“These days there’s a lot of academic pressure and external pressures to do well academically,” Dawson said. “Say for instance your parents are putting a lot of external pressure for you to do well in school and you don’t do well, that can be really traumatizing. It can lead to feelings of inadequacy and if they don’t have coping mechanisms it can lead to depression.”
Suicide, the third-leading cause of death among college-age people
Academic and social pressures aren’t all that students must deal with. There is economic, political, and environmental instability; job-related stress; family issues; mental illness; and more. The list of pressures students face seems to keep growing, and students like Dawson may have difficulty coping. Michaela Wehner, crisis-intervention specialist at the Hall Health Mental Health Clinic, said she has seen the world become increasingly stressful in all of these ways over the past 10 years.
This stress, she said — and a lack of adequate coping mechanisms — plays a role in rising suicide rates. Suicide is the third top cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds as reported by the Surgeon General’s report released in September 2012. In King County, the number of suicides in 2009 was 25 percent higher than the number that took place in 2000, according to the 2011 Washington State Department of Health Injury Tables.
“I think the unpredictability of [the world is a contributor to suicide rates],” Wehner said. “It used to be you’d go to school and you’d have sort of a sense of what the possibilities were for after graduation. Now I think there’s so much pressure on young people to excel, for one thing, competition is really fierce, and even if you do excel you don’t know exactly what the possibilities are going to be.”
Social pressures can also play a role in depression among students. Anil Coumar, the director of the Mental Health Clinic, explained that students taking medications for mental illnesses may come to college feeling that they need to stop in order to seem cool to their peers.
“That may not be a good idea,” Coumar said. “It is not a good idea to stop a medication that is working on the brain neurotransmitters without risking some adverse effects, some of which could be serious.”
Wehner said many students have more to do in a day than there are hours in which to do it all.
“Something has to give,” she said. “Usually what happens is people do try to do all those things and then what gives is their emotional well-being. They feel like everybody around them is fine, which usually isn’t the case.”
She added that for people who are depressed and feeling isolated, social networking sites can often make this feeling worse. Posts of photos from other people’s parties and the buzzing of other people’s phones can highlight the fact that the person feeling alone is not being contacted.
“With things like Facebook, if what they’re seeing is tons of social interactions, and event planning, and this that and the other, they don’t feel like they’re in the same situation. And then people feel bad about themselves,” she said.
Both Coumar and Wehner said it is important that students understand they are not alone and that they have a network of support available to them.
“What is most painful for me,” Coumar said, “is that [suicide] is a preventable cause of death.”
Dawson advises other students going through similar situations to reach out to someone. Often times, people are more receptive than you expect, he said. “For me I was scared to reach out to anyone for how they would view me differently or treat me,” Dawson said. “Once I did, I was already so far into it, but they were still really receptive. But if I did a lot sooner, a lot of that stuff might not have happened. It’s just good to take care of it and not let it marinate in its own juices.”
Wehner and Coumar said students have a number of resources on campus. The Mental Health Clinic offers both appointments and walk-ins, both for students in crisis or those who simply need someone to talk to.
Those students who do not feel comfortable going to the Mental Health Clinic on the third floor of Hall Health can see their general practitioners at Hall Health.
“We have a dedicated crisis-intervention specialist and she has a pager number,” Coumar said. “Her pager number is available on the website, and she is available to see people who are in acute crisis.”
The Mental Health Clinic also offers group sessions for everything from mindfulness and meditation to procrastination and perfectionism.
“When students get depressed or frustrated they think that they are the only ones, that everybody else has got their act together and ‘I am the only one who is like this,’” Coumar said. “When you come to a group, as a therapist, I can tell you you’re not the only one, but if you hear it from 10 of your colleagues, that ‘My struggle is the same as so and so’s struggle’ then they begin to accept themselves as they are and it’s very uplifting.”
For a student who may be uncomfortable seeking out help or being seen in a mental-health office on campus, Seattle provides several avenues of assistance. Sound Mental Health, a nonprofit, has many offices around the greater Seattle area that allow people to seek out group or individual counseling, as well as anything else their mental health might require. Several organizations in the area also offer to help students 24 hours a day through phone lines. There they can talk to someone if they have considered suicide or are struggling to help someone who is.
Dawson urges others going through situations similar to his to take advantage of resources. He is doing a lot better now. He said that his first week in the hospital was an eye-opening experience.
“I came out with a whole new perspective,” he said. “I learned new coping mechanisms and gained a support group.”
Last spring, he relapsed once and his grades slipped low enough for UW to drop him from the university for low scholarship. Dawson worked hard and was readmitted this fall. Now, he has joined the UW’s Boxing Club and said he’s working harder than ever to move forward.
“I’m doing better,” Dawson said with a slight smile.
He urges students to confront friends or classmates who they suspect might be dealing with similar mental illness.
“Reach out to someone,” he said. “More often than not, they will be more receptive than you think.”
Reach reporters Kirsten Johnson, Hillary Kirby, and Samantha Leeds at email@example.com. Twitter: @kirstenj16, @hillarynkirby, @SamanthaJLeeds
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