What’s wrong with me?

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On a quest to combat her brewing anxieties, Kim Hession investigates why depression rates are rising among university students

My symptoms:

I’m sad, lonely, stressed-out and dysfunctional. I can’t sleep because as soon as I lie down, images of course syllabuses and floor-length to-do lists scroll through my brain. I raid the fridge late at night and wake up with raging bouts of acne. Most mornings, all I feel like doing is stuffing my face with frozen dinners, watching sad movies and frantically checking my Facebook page to assure myself I have friends.

More than three self-diagnosis websites confirm my suspicions — my symptoms suggest that I’m depressed and should visit a physician. But I’m hesitant to see a doctor; anxious that I’ll be tempted to enter the world of antidepressants: a world that’s becoming increasingly populated by Canadians, many of whom are postsecondary students.

According to IMS Health Canada, a company that tracks prescription drug sales, almost 35-million antidepressant prescriptions were filled last year. A sales total that exceeded $1.5 billion. Students are one of the fastest growing groups of people reporting symptoms of depression.

A recent study in the New England Journal revealed that 45 per cent of the 13, 500 post-secondary students surveyed reported feeling depressed and 94 per cent reported feeling overwhelmed by lingering tasks they’ve yet to accomplish. But are these lingering tasks, worries and doubts not a natural part of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood? While it’s tough adjusting to added responsibility and independence, can I justify finding emotional stability in antidepressant drugs without at least trying to change my lifestyle first?

I’m a fourth-year journalism student and I no longer have time for sleep-ins and afternoon naps. I eat cake mix and pizza for breakfast. I drink coffee and vodka instead of water. The most physical part of my day is the steep climb to my second-floor bedroom. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m in need of a healthier lifestyle.

I call naturopath Dr. Vanessa Lee, who practices acupuncture and natural medicine in Yorkville. Upon hearing that I’m a university student, she suggests I increase the nutrition in my diet, and that I make sure to get around eight hours of sleep each night. Lowering my coffee intake will help void my anxieties and keep me better hydrated. Lee also stresses the importance of daily exercise. Her suggestions seem simple, yet I’ve struggled to follow them since leaving home four years ago.

Practicing medicine since 2004, Lee says she has not noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of student patients who are actually depressed. “Things like fatigue, lack of sleep, poor nutrition — they all mimic the symptoms of depression. I get very few patients who are legitimately, clinically depressed.”

This could be accredited to the low number of students willing to use mental health services. According to the JED Foundation, an organization committed to prevent suicide among university students, only 20 per cent of post-secondary students say they would seek help at their campus counseling center. Yet there are an abundance of studies that show a rising numbers of students who are suffering from depression and anxiety.

After a year of dealing with developing signs of depression, third-year nursing student Ashleigh Jack knew she needed help. It was in first-year that she noticed a shift in her mental well-being and from then on things got worse. Jack became increasingly lethargic: “I didn’t want to do anything. When somebody called me I didn’t answer because I didn’t want to hang out. I never wanted to leave my house.”

Though it was a daunting decision to make, in the winter term of her secondyear, Jack consulted her family doctor. While she was unaware of the services Ryerson provides for students dealing with depression and anxiety at the Centre for Student Development and Counseling, Jack admits that even if she had known about them, she’d rather visit a doctor who is familiar to her.

Jack’s doctor prescribed her antidepressant drugs along with the recommendation to see a psychologist. “It’s not that you just take a pill and you’re happy,” she says, “but it [gave] me the motivation to try and be happier,” says Jack.

With the dual support of anti-depressants and her psychologist, Jack was able to cope with the pressures of university life. Almost one year later she was ready to end her treatment: “One day I just said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. It was my decision. I was just like ‘I’m okay’. And that felt really good.”

While I realize that I don’t suffer from the immobilizing clinical depression that Jack and many other students have experienced, my growing anxieties are a concern and need to be dealt with.

One thing that has contributed to my feelings of isolation and anxiety is the amount of time I spend on the internet. While the internet bares a necessary presence in my life as a student, it’s also a constant distraction that keeps me up at night and deters me from living a well-rounded, physically active life.

Jack dodged the realities of her life by streaming television shows from the internet. “They’d distract me, and then I’d realize, oh yeah, that’s not my life,” she said.

A study released in August reveals that young people who spend more than five hours a day on the web are one and a half times more likely to develop depression than those who don’t.

As I browse the internet, joining an array of online networks to feel like part of a community, and playing countless games of Tetris to put off doing school-work, I wonder if the internet is partially responsible for my impending sense of doom. Could the internet be a catalyst for fullblown depression?

Well, if it is, I’m ready to stand up for myself. No longer will I give into its seductive glares. Actually, I’m pretty confident that I can give the internet, depression, and anxiety a run for its money. I can do anything. I’m Hillary Clinton.

So I map out a weekly schedule for the first time in my life, allotting time for exercise, socializing and homework. I colour code it. I commit to getting at least six hours of sleep a night. I strap a water bottle to my body so that I drink a minimum of two litres a day. If I want coffee, I force myself to drink an extra glass of water with it. I cut back on my computer usage and swap my web browsing for a jog five times a week.

I recruit friends and family to help me on my pursuit of minimizing stress and anxiety levels. A friend takes me to yoga class, claiming it is the ultimate antidote for depression. I’m crammed into a roomful of sweaty, lycra-covered women. I’m the only one exhaling when everyone else is inhaling. It feels like a torturingly long stretch before a soccer game. I try balancing with my bum in the air but I stop breathing because I’m trying so hard and I topple over. I feel frustrated and incompetent. Yoga’s not for me.

I attend my first drumming circle in Bloor West, where a rambunctious crowd is gathered. The echoing bangs of the drums make me want to sing and scream and yell. People chant when they feel like it, dance when the y feel like it, and sit when they feel like it. There is no instructor, just a community of people working together, at whatever pace they feel like, to create some kind of unifying energy. I can stand there yelling for a whole hour if I feel like it. It is the perfect way to release my stress and I decide to start attending once a week.

With a little bit of perseverance, the changes in my lifestyle have made me stronger. I am able to concentrate and to sleep at night. For the most part, I am happier. Of course there are still moments of surging anxiety and sometimes deep bouts of depression, but for the most part taking control of my schedule has equipped me with the emotional stability I haven’t felt in three years.

It would be ignorant to suggest that simply drinking more water and banging on a bongo drum once a week will ensure you a stress and anxiety-free year. I have never struggled with a serious mental disorder. But I do think that the awful but awesome university experience would cause stress in any human being. It’s about finding methods for dealing with this stress that prevent it from turning into something more serious.

For many of us, post-secondary is the in-between. We aren’t grownups yet, but we can’t get away with being kids anymore. And though putting a label on the way we feel might give us some validation, I think that it makes us feel even less in control.

Diagnoses for disorders such as ‘mild anxiety depression’, ‘psychosis risk syndrome’, and ‘temper dysregulation disorder’ are set to be published in the latest edition of the mental health bible — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s publication will provide symptoms for doctors to diagnose things like toddler tantrums, and even binge-eating disorders. With the release of this new mental health guide, leading experts in the field fear that people will be unnecessarily medicated. They worry that soon, no one will go undiagnosed; that there will no longer be a patient who is simply normal.

As people, our self-identities often rely on how we’ve been classified, summed up as a character and placed into different categories. Diagnosing myself — with the aid of the internet — felt powerful. But I don’t believe that search engines can accurately organize how I feel. I don’t think that a set of symptoms necessarily make up one problem or one disorder. I’ve stopped using self-diagnosis websites and have opted to continue exploring lifestyle measures that help me deal with the stresses I’m confronted with rather than allowing them to cripple me.

Photo: Chelsea Pottage

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