By Cille Kaiser
— On Monday, November 7th, during the opening event of the Mental Health Awareness Week, two students got the chance to share their personal experiences. The event, organized by AUC’s Peer Support Team and hosted at their Living Room in the dorms, attracted roughly 20 guests. The aim was to talk about coping with mood disorders and anxiety; the broader purpose of the entire week was to get people to talk about mental health to begin with.
Among the speakers was third-year Humanities major Daria Ivanenko, who arrived at AUC in September 2014. In her own words, she kept mostly to herself and was generally uninvolved with student activities at first. This February, however, she experienced a sudden “energy boost” during which she set up CUT, a film committee under AUCSA, and became the chair for Scopophilia, an annual art festival held in Amsterdam by AUC students. As a result, Ivanenko suddenly found herself working around the clock to steer and organize CUT and Scopophilia. “It [was] a different mindset”, she said. “You feel invincible, like you’re God.”
But a few days before Scopophilia earlier this June, she “started to crash”. This marked the first of three severe depressive episodes that Ivanenko has suffered since. Looking back, she recalls suffering from mild to moderate depressive episodes since the age of fourteen, though these were never deemed alarming until earlier this year. Then she started having suicidal thoughts. “I [sat] in my room and [was] afraid of myself”, she said. This past summer, Ivanenko reached out for help and started psychoanalytic therapy online with a therapist based in Russia, Ivanenko’s home country.
Ivanenko was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder with anxiety distress. People suffering from Bipolar Disorder experience periods of severe depression, but also go through manic episodes during which they feel ecstatic and extremely energized — much like what Ivanenko experienced in February. “Bipolar disorder is basically a mood disorder, which means that you don’t control your mood at times”, Ivanenko explained in an interview with The Herring. “The problem is that you live in a very different emotional reality. Your emotional responses in their essence may be correct, but they’re just exaggerated.” The frequency and lengths of manic- and depressive waves vary from person to person; Bipolar Disorder can manifest in many different ways.
Before Ivanenko shared her own story with the audience, third year Humanities student Molly Fitzmaurice talked about her personal experiences with anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Anorexia and paranoia. Fitzmaurice emphasized the importance of speaking out and seeking help. “You’re only as sick as your secrets”, she said during her talk.
Third year Humanities student and Peer Supporter Stefan Plug said he was very happy with the way the event went. “We achieved exactly what this week is about: we got a lot of people talking about mental health,” he said. Second year Social Sciences student and Peer Supporter Antonia Nicholls explained that people often treat mental health differently from physical health, and that the general attitude towards the former often regards it as insignificant. “We want to address this stigma by providing students with different workshops, talks and activities”, Nicholls said.
AUC’s Student Life Officer Vinika Porwal, who advises the Peer Support Team and contributed to Mental Health Awareness Week with a session about time management and prioritization, also stressed the importance of speaking out. “There’s really no way for AUC to know about such mental health and well-being related issues unless the student discloses that information themselves or there is an emergency, for example in the dorms”, she said. She adds that all such information would be kept in strict confidence and only shared on a need-to know basis in urgent situations related to health and safety.
After she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Ivanenko disclosed this information with her tutor. With Ivanenko’s consent, her tutor communicated Ivanenko’s problems with her teachers, who “reacted very differently, but all in a positive way”, she said. Although Ivanenko is generally happy with the way AUC handles her situation, she finds it problematic that there is no clear, coherent structure that can be implemented when a student suffers severe mental problems.
Porwal acknowledges the absence of a coherent support structure at AUC. The reason behind the lack of a fixed support structure at AUC, she explained, lies behind the large extent to which mental health problems and the way they may be helped vary from person to person. “If [a student seeks] support, then either me as Student Life Officer or another staff member at the university that the student is in close contact with, such as their tutor, can help them brainstorm and identify support structures. And, since every student and situation is different, these support structures vary”, Porwal said.
The individual nature of mental health issues makes it all the more important to talk about it. “ The Peer Supporters’ Mental Health Awareness Week is an awesome initiative because it essentially starts a conversation about [mental] well-being, which isn’t often discussed”, said Porwal.
For more information on the events and initiatives raised in light of Mental Health Awareness Week, visit the event’s Facebook page.