By Regis University Faculty Members
Last year, a group of faculty members and the provost at Regis University shared their experiences with mental disorders with the Regis community. In the fall we had suffered through several suicides by members from our community, and much of the campus was reeling in pain. The suicides had several effects, including increasing awareness of mental health issues, increasing people’s willingness to get professional help for their suffering, and for some people possibly triggered latent symptoms. This led to students increasing their use of counseling services and also confiding their troubles to faculty and staff more than they had previously. Regis responded with several education, training, and outreach efforts. Some faculty members and the provost have been personally impacted by mental illness, and we wanted to do our part to increase awareness and decrease stigma, as well as to be role models for willingness to be vulnerable in front of others and for seeking out help when needed. In the fall, Abigail Gosselin shared her own story with bipolar illness (manic depression) in an evening discussion; in the spring three faculty members and the provost shared their stories about anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and major depression. In the following narratives, three of us describe the reasons why we share our stories with the Regis community.
Decreasing Stigma of Mental Illness
In my first year at Regis, I had a student in one of my introductory philosophy classes who was noticeably struggling, not only academically but also behaviorally. He ended up having to leave midway through the semester, and I learned later that he had bipolar disorder, an illness I also have. After seeing him suffer and wanting desperately to be able to connect with him, I decided to be open about my illness from then on. If he had known I was bipolar probably nothing would have changed; yet I hoped that in being open I could give students with this illness a point of connection and a resource. I wanted to show them that one can suffer badly from a mental illness and yet still be a functional member of society and have both career and family.
Being open about my struggles has made me a better teacher and mentor. In connecting with students, I often draw upon my own vulnerability and my experiences with suffering, and I model being vulnerable in front of others and seeking help when I need it. Over the years, I have mentored many students with mental health and substance use issues, and I have told my story to many groups of students in an effort to increase understanding and decrease stigma. My personal experiences allow me to approach my integrative core classes on mental health and drugs and society in a distinctive way, and my students seem to get more out of those classes as a result. Although my bipolar illness has made my job challenging, being open about my struggles has allowed me to connect with people in important ways and to carry out the Regis Jesuit mission more deeply.
Prevailing with the Struggle of Clinical Depression
In my first six months as provost, I attended seven funerals of members of the Regis community. Five were suicides. People didn’t say the word out loud; I heard dozens of euphemistic phrases for killing oneself. This inability to say the words out loud hampers our ability to deal with pain and reinforces the perceived stigma around mental health issues. I understand this hesitance. I come from the Midwest, where mental illness is often judged as a character flaw that a person can “get over” if one is just determined to be well.
I decided to come out, so to speak, with my own struggles with clinical depression as a counterweight to this perception. If a provost can struggle with mental health issues and prevail, then there is hope for others who may see their mental illness as an immovable barrier to a successful and happy life. I served on a panel and shared my own struggles with clinical depression, which first revealed itself during graduate school. For at least two decades, I tried to “tough it out,” buying into the rhetoric that my frequent “despair with no name” was a choice that I could change. At my lowest point, I tried to give my dogs to my next door neighbor so that I could gas myself with carbon monoxide knowing they would be cared for. To her credit, my neighbor refused and gave me the name of her brother-in-law, a psychiatrist. Fifteen years later, I credit him with both saving my life and giving me a future filled with accomplishment and joy.
Students, faculty, and staff need to feel comfortable saying the words, speaking the names, asking the questions. We are more powerful than we know in saving lives and giving back futures.
Shedding Light on Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
In 2013, I gave birth to my beautiful daughter, Ruby. I fell in love with her instantly. Yet, soon after giving birth, my love for Ruby mixed with fear, and I began having scary thoughts. What if I threw her down the spiral staircase? What if I stabbed her with a knife? What if I drowned her in the bathtub?
Terrified, I tried to control my thoughts by repeating certain phrases to myself. I also repeated musical patterns in my mind; I rearranged knives; I avoided the spiral staircase; and I constantly checked the temperature of Ruby’s room.
Soon I was diagnosed with postpartum obsessivecompulsive disorder (PPOCD), a condition that affects up to nine percent of postpartum mothers, and some fathers, too.
Pop culture depicts OCD as a preoccupation with tidiness, but OCD is actually a serious disease of panic brought on by intrusive thoughts. Admitting these thoughts is horrifying. At first, I kept my disease secret from anyone other than healthcare providers, close family members, and one friend. I felt like a monster, and I was ashamed.
In 2015, I decided to write a piece called “String Quartet OCD” about my suffering. In 2016 and 2017, through performances, lectures, and media interviews, I went public with my story.
My students attended some of these events, and I began to speak openly to them about my suffering. I wanted to spread awareness about PPOCD and to reduce the stigma of mental illness. It is wrenching to speak shameful thoughts aloud. There is great power in doing so, however, not only in the relief you feel about telling the truth, but also in empowering others to speak their truth about mental illness.
As educators, we often tell students that we must not avoid difficult conversations, but rather work through them to greater understanding. By sharing our own difficult stories, we model this in a personal and authentic way.
Loretta K. Notareschi is a composer and an associate professor of music at Regis University. Click here to access her TEDx talk, “Understanding Mental Illness Through Music.”