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I dropped out of McGill because of depression

Advice from a woman who couldn’t find help on campus


 

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I dropped out of McGill University because of depression. It was the type that begins as a barely perceptible malaise but quickly penetrates your mind and renders you nearly unable to speak, think, or even walk. Perhaps the most common misunderstanding of depression is that it’s simply an overarching sadness permeating your positive thoughts. In its most serious form, the illness may actually leave you unable to feel anything—comfort or happiness, fear or rage. It wasn’t until I’d reached this level that I finally decided to take time off from my routine and accept help. If you find any aspect of this story relatable, I hope that you seek help immediately.

I vividly remember the first (and last) time I used McGill Mental Health Services. My parents had been asking me to get in touch with someone for months. I’d always responded to these requests by saying no, I wouldn’t see anyone because I was “fine” and “therapists are for people who need attention.” But after two years of growing increasingly despondent, I knew I had to do something. So I temporarily abandoned my mask of confidence and called.

To be guaranteed an appointment, even during summer vacation, I had to call a month in advance. I got a time slot and, a month later, made my first visit to the Brown building.

After I filled out a survey, the receptionist at the Mental Health desk directed me to the office of a triage therapist, where I was greeted with a flat, “Hello, please take a seat.” She asked me why I was there, and I couldn’t articulate further than that I was “unhappy.” She asked if I’d had interpersonal problems—friendship issues, family issues, issues with a significant other, etc. To all these prompts, I responded truthfully that no, I had none. At the conclusion of our ten minute long meeting, she informed me that no, I was “not depressed”, that there was nothing she or a therapist could do for me, and that I should go to the Career Planning Service and talk to someone there. This interaction deterred me from seeking further help, as I left McGill Mental Health that day convinced that nobody would ever understand my general discontentment with life.

When school started again in the fall, I began a pathetic attempt to feign mental and emotional stability. My friends and professors had no idea that I was having personal issues, because I appeared fine. I still went to parties, and talked with friends for hours. I even comforted a few people who might have been facing depression themselves but privately I was unraveling. I started to have outbursts of anger or sadness. The second I was alone, I’d cry almost uncontrollably. I had to leave classes to cry. I had to leave conferences to cry.

But I convinced myself that I could push through it and within a few weeks of the school year I started to have vivid suicidal thoughts. I didn’t think I’d ever act on them, but thoughts of ideation consumed hours of my day—how I might do it, what I would be wearing.  My mom started to call multiple times a day, just to make sure I’d pick up. I thought that I had to maintain a semblance of composure or face abandonment by friends. I began to make up excuses for leaving social gatherings. My grades plummeted. The depression grew progressively worse until one day I had to barricade myself in a closet until an overpowering wave of suicidal thoughts passed. Two days later, I walked out of my first final of the semester and with my last ounce of sanity withdrew from all my classes and left McGill.

Ignoring the first signs of depression is like ignoring a suspicious lump growing on your body. Like a tumor, depression, if left untreated, will wreak havoc on your health in virtually every respect. It will become more dangerous to you and perhaps those around you. It may well kill you. Last spring, if I hadn’t exercised an uncharacteristic level of restraint, I probably would have been a victim of depression myself.

McGill is struggling financially and McGill Mental Health Services are operating on a very limited budget. If students are guaranteed access to these services, I see no issue. The real problem with these services is that they’re incompatible with the needs of a deeply depressed person at almost every level. A triage therapist might misdiagnose you. They might see hundreds of students a week and be unconsciously eager to get you out of the office. Overcoming a bout of depression will take many appointments. It might take dozens of therapists until you even find one with whom you’re comfortable. If you’re feeling really low, you might not even have the energy or motivation to make an appointment. It’s incredibly difficult to address mental health issues at any large university, not just McGill.

As someone who’s cycled through many phases of depression, I want to give some advice. If you start to notice a negative change in your mood, go to McGill Mental Health immediately. Don’t write off uneasy feelings as nothing because you know yourself better than any triage therapist. If your negative moods begin to intensify, leave. Take a semester off. Take a year off. Transfer. Go back home or to wherever you feel safest. Reconnect with your family. Find a therapist you can talk to. If you’re willing, try antidepressants. But please, if you find yourself feeling progressively more numb or ‘empty,’ get as far away from school as you can. It might not be financially convenient, or fit with the career progression schedule you had planned, but your life is invaluable and you can always return.

I knew two people who decided to end their lives at McGill in the past year. Horrific doesn’t even begin to describe a suicide at 21 or 22. Although it may seem like a truism, life really is worth living, and things do get better. I had a tortuous couple years, but that’s not much time at all. I’m at a new university, I like what I’m studying, and I’m in a city that’s always been home to me. Although I’m certainly not ‘cured’ and my life’s far from perfect, I’m happy again. I couldn’t be any luckier that I decided to take time off of school. Be your own advocate – get help now.

Susannah Feinstein wrote this commentary for The McGill Daily.


 

I dropped out of McGill because of depression

  1. I am glad that the author has found the help she needed. However, why limit yourself to university mental health services? In a big city like Montreal, off campus services should be readily available.

    • It’s extremely difficult to access an off-campus service immediately unless you can afford to see a Private Therapist or Psychologist. These services tend to cost between $75 and $200 per hour session, and most insurance plans only cover a small portion.

      Most, if not all Public Mental Health services in Canada are extremely underfunded, and consequently have extremely long waiting lists, sometimes being as long as multi-year.

      There is also the option of medication. This tends to be cheaper than private therapy, but side effects can be extremely difficult to deal with, and need to be properly supervised by trained physician or psychiatrist.

      A large number of people who have a diagnosis can’t access any form of treatment, simply because they can’t afford the immediate help that they need.

      • Very true.

    • My guess would be money. Mental health services are not generally covered by Canada’s universal health system. We are talking $100+ an hour for talk therapy.

    • Off-campus services often aren’t much of an improvement over this story, unfortunately. As a resident of a different province, when I went to seek assistance at Mental Health, I was told I had to get a referral from my GP first in order to be seen. When I went to the nearest clinic to acquire this referral, the GP that I saw insisted that I speak to her a little about why I was seeking a psychiatrist; I explained my feelings of despondency and listlessness and hopelessness to her, as well as some of the chaos going on in my life at the time.

      She wound up actually insisting that I was not depressed or anxious at all, despite me telling her very plainly that I was finding it difficult to get out of bed or find motivation to do ANYTHING, and that being in large groups or conversing with strangers was becoming difficult. Her diagnosis? I was lousy at managing stress, and therefore should just take better care of my sleep, exercise, and diet habits.

      /giant facepalm

  2. Imagine for those who live in places like the far north. There are NO facilities, small isolating communities where you cannot go anywhere to clear your head without everyone knowing that you’re “not right” but cannot help or understand because no one has the tools.

    I once tried a Health Canada professional support line through my employer and the counsellor was a retired professional counsellor who actually missed one of our phone calls. I’ve been trying to help others but can barely help myself at times.

    • Ryerson University is not much different.

      Despite trying to seek help through On-Campus Health Clinic, they directed me to On-Campus Mental Health. I was passed back and forth for weeks, misdiagnosed which eventually triggered a crisis after I found out that there was no communication between the GP who was seeing me and the therapist they referred me to. I fell through the cracks even with my insistence on receiving help. I nearly lost a whole year of my studies.

      This is far too common.

  3. The same is true of the University of Toronto (St. George, at least). I’m in my second year and went in there twice; once to book an appointment, and the other to go to the appointment, and was essentially told that I was beyond the ten sessions they can offer me. I was told to go somewhere else, like CAMH or TGH. I received no referral from them, and have not been followed up… I’ve just started my second year and honestly can’t cope. It’s absolutely ridiculous that on-campus mental health services can’t help ‘severely’ depressed students.

    • I worked as a crisis social worker in emergency room for years if you are in crisis walk to the closest emergency room and describe your symptoms (not your situation) and you will have emergency help and a referral.
      When you see mental health types what they want to know about are you eating, are you sleeping, have you lost or gained weight, are you tired, are you wishing you were dead, do you have panic attacks, diarrhea, social anxiety, suicidal thoughts or worse plans, do you hear voices, are you paranoid etc. Get that info out early on.
      If you are paranoid and are hearing voices and you are in Ontario ask to be referred to the Early Intervention in Psychosis program

  4. Very well articulated. I share many of those feelings. I’ve also been to McGill’s Mental Health for the first time and it happened to be the last time as well. I don’t think I’d ever go there again. I found in my family doctor a much better resource and he offered much more help. I share Laurie’s view that an ER or clinic is your best bet. I really believe that the name “Mental Health Services” is very misleading! It’s more like assistance in personal development or time management. I would advocate that it’s name should be changed and people with mental health issues should seek clinical help.

    • I also found that my family doctor was very helpful. The right medication has changed my life, and it was my family doctor who started me on it. It may not be the right choice for everyone but it saved me from more years of depression.

  5. Good for you girl, you were able to recognize your priorities.. mental problems are in general not well treated.. since they are not part of the health care program… unfortunatly nowdays since to be a growing helth issue that the govmt is not addressing.. unfortunately phsychologist fees are high and not easy to cover.. i am glad that you found your way out.

  6. If only Mental Health worked as quickly and efficiently as the McGill Sports Medicine Clinic

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I found this to be shockingly similar to my own experience at McGill. Clearly this is an area lacking the support that is necessary for a healthy environment for students, I hope this causes the administration to consider improving these services or developing a referral service that would better address the needs of students.

  8. McGill’s Mental Health office appears to have mislead, and possibly misdiagnosed Susannah. This is extremely unfortunate.

    I was fortunate enough to have had a different experience. I went in with equally benign and vague symptoms, and was referred to an excellent therapist who really helped. McGill paid 80% (my cost was ~$15/session), and the sessions were conveniently conducted in the Brown building.

    I encourage anyone in Susannah’s position to insist on seeing a therapist, even if it is only a few times.

  9. My story at McGill was very similar to yours. The first session I went to was an “emergency” session, as I was having a panic attack or mental breakdown. They offered me anti-anxiety pills, which I refused. I dont think anti-anxiety pills are necessarily a bad thing but they were prescribing them to me after only speaking for 10 minutes. I later booked a formal session and had a terrible rapport with the psychologist (I believe she was a psychologist). I only went once in my first year, but after two years of feeling terrible, I decided to start going again. My file was transferred and I was told that the previous psychologist had written that I cry for ‘no reason’. I wonder if its the same person….. My new psychologist seemed to have ADHD and couldn’t focus when I spoke to him.
    However there is a happy ending to this story that involves McGill Mental Health. I was referred by a psychologist back home to a woman who runs the anorexia clinic. She is the reason why I can have and continue to have a happy, normal life 3 years down the road.

  10. I have to say, I actually had a different experience with mental health services at McGill. I received an informal referral from a doctor in McGill Health Services to start visiting Counselling Services in the Brown Building. The focus is on talk therapy, rather than taking a clinical approach, and I was able to work through most of my depression and anxiety issues. I ended up going through 2 therapists and the process took months but I am now mostly functional and can finish my graduate program. One of the other challenges with mental health is often things get worse before they get better, as working through one’s issues can be a painful process, especially when you might have to wait a couple weeks between appointments.

    I definitely echo the author’s sentiment that you have to be your own advocate, though. If you’re not satisfied, go back. If you don’t like your therapist, switch. I really appreciate people speaking out on this issue in general, though, since it would be great if peer support was more available.

  11. McGill Mental Health Services saved my life. I had to leave McGill because of depression, too, but benefited from timely, accessible, and extremely necessary support and treatment through McGill MHS. If some – or many – patients are not receiving adequate treatment, it’s because the system is overtaxed and needs more resources, not because it’s incapable of helping depressed people.

  12. I must be honest and admit to disagreeing quite considerably with the author. I have been struggling with depression for years before an explosive mental breakdown in my 4th year of my science degree. To be terse, I held a part time job, worked in a lab, labored for good steady grades; all the while I was deeply unhappy, waking up dreading life, having no confidence, and only a straining, false impetus to maintain the perception (to others around me) that I was alright. Everything eventually came apart at the seams, as these things usually do, and I became a recluse and a drop out. Through my family doctor I met my therapist, a truly good-hearted woman, who was clever but unhelpful. Unlike the author, and too many college students suffering from this affliction, I did not think that depression absolved me of my dignity, my self-control, or my determination. I did not think a therapist, or a drug should mold the contents of my mind, however diseased and putrid they may be. I was determined to struggle, and not molder in a pool of self-pity and melancholy. There is always a way. Don’t depend on the system in such a pathetic, weak-will manner. If your university doesn’t provide the services you need, find a place where you can find them. I confronted the shadows in my mind, not with drugs, or the warm words of a therapist, but with my loving family, with the scribblings of Nabokov, Waugh, and Green, and the poetry of Auden and Eliot and by finding a new facet of my chosen profession that gives me ineffable joy. It was not easy, but then again nothing in life that is truly worth it, is easy. I am not infallible, but I can honestly say I crawled forth from my self-created pit covered with the blood and sweat of my toils. Don’t whine, don’t drown yourself in platitudes and mediocrity. Defeat your own solipsism and self-importance and set yourself free.

  13. I have been struggling with depression for years before an explosive mental breakdown in my 4th year of my science degree. I held a part time job, worked in a lab, laboured for good steady grades; Everything eventually came apart at the seams, as these things usually do, and I became a recluse and a drop out. I saw a therapist, a goodhearted woman, who was clever but unhelpful. Unlike the author, I did not think that depression absolved me of my dignity, my self-control, or my determination. I did not think a therapist, or a drug should mold the contents of my mind, however diseased and putrid they may be. I was determined to struggle, and not molder in a pool of self-pity and melancholy. Don’t depend on the system in such a pathetic, weak-will manner. If your university doesn’t provide the services you need, find a place where you can find them. I confronted the shadows in my mind, not with drugs, or the warm words of a therapist, but with my loving family, with the scribblings of Nabokov, Waugh, and Green, and the poetry of Auden and Eliot and by finding a new facet of my chosen profession that gives me ineffable joy. It was not easy, but then again nothing in life that is truly worth it, is easy. I am not infallible, but I can claim I crawled forth from my self-created pit covered with the blood and sweat of my toils. Don’t drown yourself in platitudes and mediocrity. Defeat your own solipsism and self-importance.

  14. I have been struggling with depression for years before an explosive mental breakdown in my 4th year of my science degree. I became a recluse and a drop out. I did not think that depression absolved me of my dignity, or my self-control. I did not think a therapist, or a drug should mold the contents of my mind, however diseased and putrid they may be. I confronted the shadows in my mind, not with drugs, or the warm words of a therapist, but with my loving family, with the scribblings of Nabokov, and the poetry of Auden and Eliot and by finding a facet of my chosen profession that gives me ineffable joy. I am not infallible, but I can claim I crawled forth from my self-created pit covered with the blood and sweat of my toils. Don’t drown yourself in platitudes and mediocrity. Defeat your solipsism.

  15. I work full-time and go to university full-time in Alberta. This is hard enough but I also take care of my mom at home who suffers from a severe form of schizophrenia. One thing that I found helped me was by telling my profs, my friends, and my fraternity brothers that I am suffering at home. Too many people try to hide their feelings, like the author of this article, and that just make things even worse. There is help out there!!! University will always be there when you come back. I have been in university for longer than four years trying to earn my degree but have had to take time off to get myself or my mom help.

  16. I only just saw this article, more than a year after it was written, but I can’t help but relate with my similar McGill story. I was suffering from an eating disorder and finally admitted to myself that it was no way to live. It was also over summer holidays and I waited about a month and a half for the appointment with the Eating Disorder part of McGill Health Services, all while trying to maintain a normal enough life (starting classes, keeping things together, etc). It was finally the day of my appointment and I was about 5mins late due to being confused about exactly what building/door to enter. This was apparently ‘too late’ even though the appointment slot had another 25min or so to it. The secretary called the doctor in her office and she said it was best to reschedule (??) and refused to see me at all that day when I asked if that was possible. I just fell apart. I don’t think I had cried throughout my whole ordeal as much as I cried then. I know my completely over-blown reaction was due to my mental and physical health at that point, but hell, I was in Metal Health Services (so pretty understandable!)! Anyways, needless to say I wasn’t prepared to wait another god-know-how-long! I did finally get help from a Youth Clinic part of a local CLSC (who provided me with blood work from a Med Doctor, regular meetings with a Nutritionist and weekly meetings with a Social Worker) and have been healthy for 8+ years now. But I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder remembering my pathetic young self crying in McGill Health Services.

  17. Pingback: Friend of a Depressed University Student | HumansofDepression

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