Everything seemed to be in place for her collegiate career.
She graduated from the prestigious Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois, and was recently admitted to the University as a chemical engineer.
Everything wasn’t just falling perfectly into place; rather, everything was going exactly as Dayna Lei had planned. Quickly finding her footing in college was never a concern; she had always been a good student — even better, she was gifted.
Two years into her degree, she put a stop to her studies at the end of the Spring 2017 semester.
Lei was suicidal.
The pressure to overachieve was a weight that never let up. Lei’s troubles compounded each week as assignment grades became final grades. And it didn’t let up as she became a sophomore when final grades became GPA.
There was Lei’s demanding workload, plus the lifestyle changes that came with being a chemical engineering major. Add on relationship struggles, and Lei’s stress was overloaded. By fall of her sophomore year, Lei felt like she was losing her grip on her schoolwork and academic reputation, which had always been her identity.
She started having suicidal thoughts during winter break in 2016. The thoughts would creep their way into her mind, coming and passing, but never ceasing completely. Even when things started to look up, the thoughts were latent and waiting to resurface.
It wasn’t the first time Lei had struggled with depression or suicidal ideation. At 14, she ran away from her suburban home and left a suicide note. Instead of bringing an acute awareness to the importance of her mental health, the outcome that followed was the opposite: She swallowed her feelings, ignored the ideation, picked up the same emotional weight and pretended it wasn’t heavy.
“I was in an inpatient psychiatric ward for about a week and then an outpatient one for three weeks,” Lei said. “In the years afterward, I kind of led myself to believe that mental health didn’t exist.”
Now as a University student, she was experiencing the infamous engineering student lifestyle glorifies grades over all else. Lei was neglecting her health and happiness, and the effects were surfacing.
Lei recalls her peers reveling in pulling all-nighters, proclaiming their disrupted sleep schedules and boasting about their overloaded schedules.
“They had the idea that not taking care of yourself somehow makes you a better student,” Lei said. “They care more about being a better student, or pretending to be a better student, than their actual health.”
The heavy workload and overachieving culture she experienced as a chemical engineer was nothing new; her schoolwork had been comparable to college level since her sophomore year of high school, her first year at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. All throughout her time there, she and her peers stayed awake long nights doing homework. It was seen as normal.
Abnormal, she felt, was any serious discourse on the mental health effects of this cultural and academic pressure. Lei remembers a brief and particularly revealing conversation with a high school friend.
“I asked him, ‘If I was self-harming, would you report me to the counseling office?’” Lei said. “He was like, “Yeah, because evolutionarily, it’s not normal to want to hurt yourself.’”
In order to blend in, Lei kept her head down and continued to push the troubling thoughts to the periphery, focusing on her academics. She made good grades and achieved her goals. But it only ever granted temporary relief; there was always something new to tackle.
As a college student, she found greater competition in Champaign. Lei was under the impression that college would be a breeze compared to the long days of lecture and sleepless nights studying at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.
“They were like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be surrounded by normal people now who went to normal high schools. It’s going to be so easy for you,’ Lei said.
But it wasn’t easy for her at all. The standard of achievement as a chemical engineer made Lei feel small and stay quiet. Whenever she wanted to ask questions in class, her heart rate spiked as if she were sprinting. She attributes some of that anxiety to “smart people culture: You’re not allowed to ask questions because you’re supposed to know.”
She started missing classes. She was invisible in her large lectures. For her smaller courses, Lei tried reaching out to teaching assistants and instructors to let them know about her mental health struggles.
Even her classes outside of Engineering seemed to require more energy than she had to give. Some of her instructors granted leniency after hearing her situation, but not all of them were on the same page. Her psychology TA was one of the least sympathetic instructors.
“It’s not that he didn’t believe me; it’s that he didn’t understand it,” Lei said.
She thought she had depression, which she knew was a prevalent mental illness for college students.
Her struggles showed up on her transcript. After the first semester of her sophomore year, she said her GPA was around 0.86. Her academic adviser switched Lei’s major to undecided, sparing her from extra engineering fees until she figured out what she wanted to do. But it wasn’t just her major she was unsure about.
While some students consider their time at the University as the beginning of their adult lives, for Lei, college had always been the “end goal.” It’s what she built her entire life to lead up to. It was the culmination of all her hard work and the goal her parents had set.
But her life post-admission was a part of the plan Lei never really detailed. Now that she had made it, and was failing, Lei was aimless. She felt paralyzed, overwhelmed by the situation but completely unable to respond. Her academics didn’t engage her the way they used to, and she couldn’t find happiness or relief in anything.
“Everything you expect to enjoy, you don’t,” Lei said. “And the things you do enjoy, you don’t have the motivation to do them.”
The suicidal ideation was relentless. She played YouTube videos as “white noise” to drown out the chaos in her head to fall asleep.
Lei knew her problems wouldn’t just fade away, so she decided to seek professional help. She went to the Counseling Center. Even though she feels she eventually “hit a wall” in her work with them, the professionals helped her clarify some of her thoughts, introducing her to the theory of mindfulness.
“They were the ones that taught me my thoughts are not me,” Lei said. “For the longest time, I thought that emotional maturity was not having emotions.”
The transition to university life is often when people who have never experienced mental health disorders may start to see them surface, said Tom Miebach, crisis triage case manager at the Counseling Center.
Miebach works with both regularly scheduled appointments and emergency appointments. He found that the instability of college life leads students to seek help. Despite the different pressures, Miebach said it’s not unusual to start seeing symptoms of mental illness in college students. Young adults with illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar often start exhibiting symptoms in their late teens and early twenties.
The Counseling Center and the Emergency Dean’s office log information on suicide attempts, threats and completed suicides of students. They also work to accommodate friends and family in the wake of students’ deaths. Because the information collected is reliant on others divulging their personal struggles to the center, they may not relate the full number of incidences on campus.
However, figures from the Counseling Center indicate four completed suicides from 2011-2014 school years. From 2014-2016, the University recorded 12 completed suicides.
As for the most recently completed school year, Associate Dean of Students Rhonda Kirts said the University processed three suicides. This does not include the three suicides of University students committed during the summer after the Spring 2017 semester.
Kirts said one of the students who died by suicide was enrolled in the summer session, while the other two were not.
Miebach said it can be a challenge for students to discern whether their feelings are part of a normal adjustment to university life or if they need to seek professional help. While there is no concrete way of knowing, he stressed the importance of being proactive about mental health during what can be an especially vulnerable time.
Miebach emphasized that it’s normal for students to feel emotions like sadness and anxiety, but these can become problematic.
“If those things get in the way of your day-to-day life in some way, if it’s really creating barriers to you leading the kind of life you want to live, socially or academically, then it might be worth talking to somebody about,” Miebach said.
Students can call to schedule same-day appointments at the Counseling Center starting at 7:50 a.m. The center opens its doors 10 minutes later. Miebach said the system is meant to keep the center from getting backlogged and to get students the help they need as soon as possible.
When a student schedules their initial same-day appointment, Miebach said the goal is to gather general information and move forward from there at meetings to follow. Students may also make requests regarding a counselor’s background for the purpose of finding a better fit or simply making the student feel more comfortable.
“If someone has a preference, in terms of their counselor’s identity, background, gender, et cetera, they can certainly make that request if they call in for the same-day appointment, or, once they’re here, we could work with them to accommodate that,” Miebach said.
Lei knows firsthand how important it is to have a comfortable therapist-patient bond. Her first experience with a therapist was so damaging she said she didn’t trust professionals for a while after.
“He accused me of lying, so then I was just like, ‘F— this, I’m not going to do this anymore,’” Lei said. “It wasn’t until last year that I went into therapy again.”
After returning to professional counseling, she found that her new therapist was able to illuminate many nuances about her condition that Lei didn’t know. It was with through this therapist that Lei learned about passive ideation.
Passive suicidal ideation is the belief that life is not worth living, often including a desire for death. Passive ideation is a serious risk factor for suicide but is different that active ideation, which can include a suicide plan or thoughts of self-harm.
Lei said the passive nature of her suicidal ideation, combined with her status as a “good student,” could have lessened the gravity of her situation in the eyes of her friends and family.
“I am a high-functioning person,” Lei said. “People seeing me, they don’t see me as this type of person that’s emotional, that suffers with mental health crises, (and) that deals with passive ideation every single day.”
Lei hit her breaking point in the summer of 2017. As the school year ended, she wanted to switch majors and study psychology. The plan didn’t appeal to her parents, and money became an issue. Combined with the severity of her illness and how it impacted her studies, taking some time off from school to address her health and reassess her options seemed to make more and more sense.
She knew her struggles were not an anomaly of her enterprising academic career but instead a product, in part, of the intense pressure she felt to be a great student.
Despite the logistics of putting a temporary halt to her education, Lei was still more than hesitant to make a move. She pushed herself to take what she believed was the smartest step for her.
“I just kept on convincing myself that I could do it,” Lei said. “That’s the funny thing about depression. Society basically says that college students are seen as quote-unquote successful, so why would we have a mental illness?”
A social stigma
Not generally the type to hide who she is, Lei confided in her friends about her depression. They offered some support, but the stigma surrounding suicide was pervasive. Not many of her friends seemed to understand the severity of what she was going through.
“’Oh, but what about your friends, what about everything you have, why aren’t you grateful for everything you have?’” Lei said her friends would tell her. “They guilt you for it.”
She said her family’s rejection of mental illness added to her struggles and delayed her eventual search for help and community.
“My parents were not educated about it. I wasn’t educated about it, so it took me five whole years to accept that I had a mental illness,” Lei said. “It took me an extra five years to begin my journey towards recovery.”
Miebach said the fear students might have of their family discovering their struggles with mental health shouldn’t preclude them from visiting the Counseling Center, as all of the services are confidential.
“So if a student were to come here to get help, we wouldn’t notify parents, professors. Nobody would know about that,” Miebach said.
Outside of counseling offices and therapy couches, Lei said she feels people who suffer from suicidal thoughts often feel a pressure to be silent or face judgment for speaking out or seeking help.
Stigma comes at a cost, and many people who suffer mental illnesses will face them alone. According to a study on the impact of mental illness stigma on seeking and participating in mental health care, approximately 40 percent of those suffering from a serious mental illness do not receive professional help, and 20 percent of patients quit treatments prematurely.
Lei said she knows several people who have paid that cost with their lives.
In the last year, three people she knew from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy have committed suicide, Lei said. And she has an answer to why people often stay silent.
“As soon as we talk about it, we’re seen as weak. We’re seen as weak or we’re seen as ungrateful and that is why it’s still an epidemic,” Lei said.
Michael Bushman knows the cost of staying silent can be great, not only for people’s own health but also for those who may be suffering around them.
Bushman attended the University in the late ’80s and worked as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini. He is now an author and a mental health advocate.
After a student he knew died by suicide in a very visible way shortly before graduation, Bushman decided addressing mental health and sharing his own struggles with mental illness was worth wearing the stigma it was shrouded in.
He wrote a column for the newspaper revealing his suicidal ideation, his “secret.” The personal catharsis of sharing his battles with mental illness and the hope of uplifting others who dealt with the same issues inspired him to share his experience.
“(I wanted to) help other people realize that when they’re struggling. They’re not alone,” Bushman said.
For the 30 years following the column, Bushman stayed silent. He finally decided to speak out again in the form of a book he categorizes a part novel, part memoir, titled “Suicide Escape.” The book details some of his own story and includes a discussion where he touches on life lessons he wishes he would’ve known as a young adult struggling with suicidal thoughts.
This time, he was inspired to share publicly after the suicide attempt of his close friend.
Even as an adult with an established corporate career, Bushman said he still felt the issue of suicidal ideation was so mired in stigma that he had some reservations about sharing his story again.
Some of that hesitance came from within; Bushman said he felt “caught up in (his) own stigma about mental health issues.” Outside of his own feelings of reservation, some of that hesitance was a result of how those he knew reacted to his friend’s suicide attempt.
“Fortunately, she survived it,” Bushman said. “But I watched as she struggled, and once she came out and talked about her suicide attempt, a lot of people kind of scattered — not because they didn’t love her, but more because they were afraid to say the wrong thing.”
Lei said there are contradictory ways, in her experience, for how those who don’t suffer from a mental illness interact with people like her, who have shared their suicidal ideation. They either “walk on eggshells” or downplay the severity of mental illnesses in general.
“I noticed that it’s either you treat us like we’re broken, or you completely invalidate everything that we’re feeling,” Lei said. “It’s easier than accepting that (mental illness) exists.”
Mady Smith thinks raising awareness is one way to beat the stigma.
Smith, junior in AHS, is the co-founder of Up With Life. The RSO walks to fund various suicide prevention programs. She and her twin sister started the organization years before they got to college, shortly after they lost their father to suicide.
“When it happened to my dad, we did not see it coming. We had no idea what was going on,” Smith said. “And maybe if we would have had something like this in our community, it wouldn’t have happened.”
They raised approximately $22,000 in their hometown of Cambridge, Illinois, through Up With Life’s walks before coming to University and continuing the effort to raise awareness as an RSO.
Bushman took part in Up With Life’s walk on campus as a speaker. Smith said the walks provide a platform for people to make themselves vulnerable in a setting free of judgment.
Rather than dwell on negativity, Smith said that helping people helps her own progress.
“They got up on stage in front of 500 people and they were like, ‘Yeah, like 20 years ago I tried to commit suicide, and I haven’t even told my family yet,’” Lei said. “But they got up in front of 500 people, and they could talk about it.”
Smith knows that those affected by suicide sometimes internalize the stigma and feel pressure to push on instead of working through their grief with others.
“At the beginning, I just didn’t talk about it. I was like, ‘It didn’t happen, I’m fine.’ I wasn’t.” Smith said. “Being able to talk about it and help others instead of focusing on myself really helped me work through it a little bit better.”
She hopes Up With Life can continue to serve as the community for those suffering from suicidal ideation, providing a support system for those who have lost someone and are feeling helpless.
“You don’t have to be strong,” Smith said. “Keep your loved ones close, and they’ll get you through it.
What lies ahead
Every other Tuesday at 7 p.m., Lei is in Lincoln Hall.
She serves as a co-president for the University chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Sometimes they host guest speakers, and sometimes they have presentations about events and initiatives. Sometimes they go over terms and characterizations and dispel common pop culture misrepresentations of different mental illnesses that some members may have and that some members may have never known existed.
Lei joined NAMI as a sophomore and has continued working with the association throughout her gap year. She said she just recently found her voice in the organization several months after joining.
“The people within NAMI, they didn’t even know that I had anything,” Lei said. “They didn’t even know that I had mental health conditions until maybe this year when I started showing it more, by expressing my opinions more about it and being more assertive about it.”
NAMI members range from undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates and even some community members unassociated with the University; however, some NAMI initiatives are focused on making improvements specifically for University students.
Volunteer chair Anu Venkatesh, junor in LAS, is spearheading NAMI’s push for a University-sponsored mental health orientation program. She envisions it operating similarly to the other orientations first-year students attend to acclimate to issues commonly faced on campus.
Venkatesh said she believes since the University takes alcohol abuse and sexual assault seriously enough to have a mandatory orientation mental health should be on this tier as well.
“We’ve been working on this for a couple years now,” Venkatesh said. “We want to get some sort of mental health orientation to address suicide prevention, to address mental health, education and resources, how to interact with those around you who have mental illnesses, and what’s appropriate and what’s not to say to people, to know how prevalent it is around us.”
Lei is hoping a similar orientation program will be required for students attending the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. She said she has contacted the school’s president. The NAMI DuPage affiliate—DuPage is the county the school is located in—has also been in touch with school officials but is waiting for a progress update.
Venkatesh said NAMI’s orientation initiative is in its beginning steps but has the support of University of Illinois Police Chief Jeff Christensen. Smith is also hoping Up With Life will work with local authorities to provide additional training specifically for threats of suicide on campus.
“This next year, we’re hoping to donate to the Champaign Police Department to help get them training, so if (a resident adviser) calls and reports a suicidal student, they know how to handle that a little bit better,” Smith said.
Local law enforcement is a partner of the Counseling Center, which Miebach works closely with as a liaison to the community. Law enforcement responds to crises involving suicide attempts. Miebach believes mental health crises are medical emergencies, saying people who are suicidal and feeling “urges to act on those thoughts” should go to the hospital.
As for her own crises, Lei said she is learning to deal with them on her own and over time. She can recognize when a panic attack is arising and characterizes them as a melding of her “emotional thoughts” and her “cognitive side.” Lei said the latter has the ability to recognize those thoughts will pass, while her emotional thoughts can be too infused with overwhelming feelings to be rational.
“When I’m having a crisis, I’m unable to separate those thoughts; I legitimately believe (them),” Lei said. “I think the last time I had a crisis I had to create a little list of reasons to stay alive.”
She was diagnosed this year with bipolar II. Both bipolar II and bipolar I have moods going between high and low over time. High moods are known as manic episodes, while low moods are known as depressive episodes. With bipolar II, the depressive episodes are similar, but the manic episodes are less severe and are known as hypomania.
Though having a diagnosis was validating and clarifying for her, Lei considers all mental illnesses to be serious with or without labels and worries some are not regarded with the same importance as others.
“(Mental illnesses) shouldn’t be put on a hierarchy of what’s more serious, which is kind of what I didn’t like about what they taught in one of my psychology classes,” Lei said. “They were like, ‘Schizophrenia is like the cancer of mental illnesses,” and I was like ‘Uh…,’ because every single mental disorder should be treated with the same validation and respect.”
Lei lives off campus in Urbana and works full time. She would be a junior now if not for her gap year, but she knows now that focusing on future details can hinder her personal progress.
“I know I talked to my therapist a lot about not saying ‘should,’ like what you ‘should’ be versus what you are,” Lei said. “If we’re focusing on where we should be, what we should be doing, it’s more of self-shaming, whereas you should more accept who you are and what you’re doing.”
She knows her own suicidal ideation and the issues she sees in society’s treatment of mental illness won’t be cured in a gap year, but she hopes her work as a mental health advocate can help chip away at the stigma and bring suicidal ideation into the light for herself and for others.
“It’s OK to talk about this stuff, it’s OK not to want to live your life,” Lei said. “When most people have a terminal illness, we’re sad about it, but when it comes to ourselves, when we don’t want to live our lives, we should technically be sad about that, too.”
For Lei, passive ideation persists, but she works toward her ideal world by first building a culture that takes mental illness seriously.
“If someone broke their leg, you wouldn’t tell them just to get over it,” Lei said. “You would tell them to go to the emergency room and get help. And mental illness should be viewed the same way.”
The post A quiet crisis: A conversation on mental health, suicides on campus appeared first on The Daily Illini.
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December 11, 2017 at 07:57AM