Light in the darkness

Facing mental illness from students who have been there

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Taylor Coston settles into her seat at Rivertown Coffee Co., mimosa in hand. It’s a clear morning in Florence, the sun is shining, and there’s a breeze welcoming spring.

Coston is smiling, welcoming and friendly. She is an average college student hanging out at the local coffee shop after class, enjoying the chatter and ambience. Without talking to her, you wouldn’t know she is part of the large community of young adults fighting the stigma of mental health through personal experience.

Coston, a senior at the University of North Alabama, is one of the 16 million Americans living with depression, one of the 7 million Americans living with an anxiety disorder and one of the 8 million Americans living with an eating disorder.

“I came from a home that wasn’t very proactive when it came to mental health, so we had a lot of undiagnosed mental illness and things like that,” Coston said. “I first started struggling with mental illness around puberty, around middle school. Stemming from my home environment, I started developing depression, anxiety and developed an eating disorder. I grappled with all three of those all through high school. It wasn’t until I got to UNA that I noticed there was a problem and I could do something to help — not to fix it, per se, but to get it under control.”

Anxiety affects 25 percent of children and young adults age 13 to 18, yet many cases are undiagnosed.

Cayman Gardner, a sophomore at UNA, noticed an onset of depressive symptoms in high school, the peak age for people with major depressive disorder.

“I started going through all the things that everyone starts hitting as soon as they become a senior — who do I want to be, where do I want to go, how is my life going right now,” he said.

Cayman Gardner [KALI DANIEL/SET MAGAZINE]

Gardner was hospitalized at UAB in February 2016, and then registered at UNA where he learned about a valuable, under-utilized resource: Counseling.

Student counseling services really helped me get to where I am now,” he said. “They got me to a point where I didn’t think I wanted to be on [medication] anymore. Now I don’t even go to talk therapy.”

Like Gardner, UNA senior Haley Craig began going to counseling in college, though her epiphany came in a different manner.

“In psychology we have to take a course where you learn about all the different mental illnesses [and I read one and thought] ‘holy crap, that’s me,’” she said. “So then I was personally involved.

“[As a psychology major,] every aspect of my life has mental illness or a mental health issue in it, so it’s unavoidable. The first step really is recognizing there’s an issue there, because then you can take steps to get help. Even if you don’t feel like you need help, just try going anyway. That’s how I started.”

UNA students pay a standard health fee every semester, which goes toward the resources of a campus clinic and student counseling services. As such, there’s no payment required when making an appointment. But there are many other resources available to young adults who aren’t college students.

“Obviously if you’re in crisis you can go to any hospital and they will see you and help you get out of your crisis, so that’s number one,” Coston said. “State-run facilities like Riverbend are really good resources. You can always call, too, your county health department and see who they refer to. I can imagine that if you were a person of faith, you could probably go to a church or a synagogue and the priests and pastors and rabbis — they do their job but they’re also counselors. That’s kind of their secondary job description. It’s understood.”

Resources are even becoming more available in the digital world, where there is an option for every individual’s preference.

“You can get apps that help if you don’t have another resource,” Craig said. “I use Headspace, which is for meditation. There’s also online counseling apps you can get, and you can also do online support groups. Sometimes just knowing that there’s someone who’s struggling the same way you’re struggling helps in a weird way.”

Haley Craig. [KALI DANIEL/SET MAGAZINE]

“I have the Rise Up app which is for people who want to be mindful about their eating habits,” Coston said. “I also use the texting [services]. There’s a number you can text when you’re in crisis or you just need someone to talk to, 741-741. It’s kind of like a crisis hotline but for texting, which I think is really important.

Those in high school can reach out to their school counselors, who get the ball rolling in terms of getting help and validating feelings.

“School counselors can at least help you get started in terms of processing whatever budding mental issues or home issues [you have],” Coston said. “They can help you start the process. I say ‘start’ because it’s a long process. They can at least get the ball rolling and helping [you] feel heard. If they don’t feel validated, they probably think what does it matter whether or not I live or die? But someone is hearing and understands, it can make all of the difference.”

And in times of doubt, there’s always the age-old information station: Books.

“There are so many different books and so many different perspectives,” Coston said. “If you want to look at mental illness through a spiritual lens, there are books for that. If you want to look at a therapeutic or cognitive health-based or chemical-based, you can read and educate yourself.”

Reading, too, fights stigmas perpetuated by friends, family and media. Those who don’t understand mental health may see illnesses as a lack of control or made up, however those who identify with illnesses are far from alone.

“There’s mental illness, but that doesn’t mean you’re ill,” Craig said. “It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, just like getting a cold doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.”

“Stigmas target your character as a person,” Coston said. “The reality of it is it’s a neurochemical imbalance. Would you shame someone for having diabetes? ‘My diabetes causes me to do this and feel this way, and I have to take medication because I don’t produce enough insulin.’ It’s the same exact thing with depression and anxiety.”

But what’s the best way to replenish those neurotransmitters your body fails to produce?

“There’s a certain point you can help yourself, but there’s a certain point where you just can’t,” Gardner said. “You need help to get you back to the point that you can pick back up on your own. That’s what medication did for me.

“I just had to have enough to get me to the point where I could get back on my own feet and take over my own recovery.”

Generally, treatment for disorders is a combination of medication and therapy, with emphasis on the latter. Therapy and counseling encourages those with a mental illness to cope, learn from their body and take preventative measures.

“It helps me so much just to talk to somebody and just to put it out into words and have them be my soundboard,” Coston said. “That helps me a lot. Believe it or not, with mental illness, a lot of it is counterintuitive. For example, I just want to be alone and I don’t want to talk to anybody. That’s what I feel like doing. But I know that it’s bad to isolate yourself when you feel a mood swing coming on. So I should probably go hang out with friends and be with people.

“There’s this acronym called HALT. Whenever you have a negative emotion — sadness, anger, anxiety, fill in the blank — ask yourself ‘Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?’ Eat, talk to somebody, go be with friends. I can not tell you how many times I have felt so bad and like my world was coming to an end when really all I needed was a nap. A nap can fix everything. It’s a life reset button.”

Gardner, too, learned various ways to cope, primarily keeping busy and staying active.

“In high school you just go to school in the morning and come home and have the rest of [the] day ahead of you,” he said. “Getting ready for college, you’re always busy doing something. I guess that’s what really kept me out of that mindset, keeping busy.”

Like most young adults, Gardner enjoys the occasional Netflix binge and also playing tennis at his apartment complex, getting involved in campus organizations and focusing on advocacy with groups like Active Minds.

Most of all, Coston, Craig and Gardner offer a message of hope for those struggling as they once had.

“Part of [therapy] is accepting that [mental illness] is your reality,” Craig said. “But that it doesn’t have to be a bad reality.”

Realizing that life should be lived moment-to-moment can ease problematic days, Gardner said.

“Everything is temporary,” he said. “[In the future] you’ll realize just how much that one problem back in high school that really hurt you and really messed with you just isn’t that important anymore. It feels important in the moment, but if you can just get past that, timewise, it really does help if you can just get out of the situation.”

But most importantly, no one should ever be afraid to ask for help.

“Just say something,” Coston said. “If you’re struggling, just speak up. Don’t give up on yourself.

“If I were to talk to 15-year-old me, the first thing I would tell her is ‘what you are feeling and what you are going through is real. It’s serious. And you’re worth the attention. You’re worth the help.’”