One in five Canadians will be diagnosed with a mental disorder during their life, and young people are especially at risk. President of the University of Ottawa Allan Rock takes a look back on his own experience as an undergraduate student in the hope of encouraging students experiencing difficulty to use the services the University offers.
ALLAN ROCK, PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF OTTAWA
It all started during my undergraduate studies in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Arts. I had just turned 18 and was still living with my parents. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I learned later that the sudden waves of paralyzing anxiety that were overwhelming me more and more often were known as “panic attacks.”
It mostly happened to me on campus: in the cafeteria, in the hallways and even in class. My heart would start racing, I’d begin to blush and sweat, and I’d feel like I was losing control. On top of that, I was convinced that everyone around me could see that I was “panicking,” which made things even worse.
I started to avoid the University. I went downtown only to attend my classes and would quickly return home. I started to lose all my self-confidence. I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I dropped all my activities and isolated myself from my friends. I felt increasingly lonely and depressed. I had no idea what was happening to me or how to escape it. I felt like I couldn’t talk about this to anyone. Especially not to my parents—I thought they would never understand.
I refused to admit that I had a mental health problem. The very idea frightened me and filled me with shame.
My sister, who had just completed her nursing studies and left home, had left a psychiatry textbook in the family library. I looked through it and found parts that seemed to describe my symptoms: neurosis, anxiety and depression. Now I knew (or thought I knew) what my problem was, but I still had no solution.
I suffered in silence for weeks, miserable and alone, until one day, as I was sitting and watching students in the hall between classes on the second floor of Simard Hall, I was struck by a huge wave of anxiety and felt the weight of crushing solitude. At that moment, I vowed that I would do something—anything—to get better.
I flipped through the Yellow Pages under “psychiatrists” and found a list of a dozen names. It took me several days to gather my courage and call these people. Finally, I dialled the numbers one by one, told each receptionist about my troubles and asked for an appointment. These professionals were all too busy to take me, except one, who answered the phone himself. He listened to my impassioned cry for help and made an appointment with me for the very next day. I remember the relief I felt at that moment, just from knowing that I was finally going to be able to talk to someone about my secret.
I saw the psychiatrist once a week for several months. I didn’t tell anyone about this, especially not my parents. His services were not covered by health insurance, and he normally charged $90 a visit, which there was no way I could afford. In an act of kindness that still astounds me today, he agreed to see me for free. (Many years later, when I was practicing law in Toronto, I sent him a cheque along with a thank-you note expressing the hope that my contribution would allow him to one day take on another distressed client who could not afford to pay him.)
During the year that followed, with his help and advice, I regained my senses and my judgment. I started to come out of isolation. Slowly, gradually, I started to see my friends again and became involved in university life once more. I learned to know myself better with guidance that helped me grow and develop as an individual.
It wasn’t easy for me to seek out help. And I was very lucky to come across such a generous person who truly transformed my life.
Many years have passed since.
The world and the University are very different today, but some things remain the same: anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders are still very common in university settings.
I know how painful and troubling they can be.
But know that you are not alone.
One of the ways the University has changed for the better is the significantly expanded offer of confidential counselling services on campus. Anyone who feels they may need it can request a rapid assessment by a counsellor.
Don’t try to overcome your difficulties or seek treatment on your own. Instead, make use of the excellent support services available to you.
Most importantly, don’t suffer in silence, all by yourself. When I finally got the help I needed, it made a huge difference. With time, my symptoms faded, then disappeared, never to return.
Please, don’t hesitate to ask for help. All it takes is one phone call.
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