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Mental illness awareness at Rice: My story and a hope for stigma reduction

By Kelle Kampa     3/29/12 7:00pm

A friend called me up the other day asking, somewhat unexpectedly, if it was okay that he mentioned my experience with mental illness in his own session with a counselor. I agreed without thinking twice; after all, he was a close friend and I knew everything would remain in confidence.

But then it hit me. Why should my experiences be kept hidden? If, by sharing what I went through with a friend, it allowed him to seek help of his own, then why not share with as many people as possible? Why not take a personal stand in the struggle to eliminate the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses, especially on the Rice campus? So here I am now, writing to whomever will read, and talking to whomever will listen.

I have suffered from varying levels of depression for several years now. My time at Rice has been fraught with bouts - sometimes lasting days on end - of anxiety, fear, shame and suicidal thoughts lurking far too close to my consciousness. For a large portion of my struggle with this mental illness, I was alone with my thoughts and feelings, confiding in no one and keeping it all hidden as best I could. This wasn't terribly difficult since I was (and am) fairly involved at my college (HFH!). Devoting my time and energy to the things I'm passionate about - my college, my friends and yes, academics (I mean, this is Rice) - kept me from focusing too hard on my own personal issues.

But eventually, my stoic and self-reliant attitude toward my depression wore me down. I've always been the proactive type, and I figured I could work through my own problems without burdening anyone else or seeking professional help. The stigma that accompanies mental illness, pervasive and insidious as it is, kept me from taking the first step of telling another person what I was going through. What would other people think of me? How would it affect my relationships with friends and family? Would people treat me with caution, as alarmingly fragile, or worse, a basket-case?

It has since dawned on me that I need not be so heavily weighed down with these concerns. None of the things that I worried would be consequences of getting help have come to pass. I started out by telling two of my best friends, who turned out to be the best support system I could have ever asked for in such a trying time. They encouraged me to seek help from a professional counselor, and I was eventually prescribed with medication to ease my struggle, which I continue to take every day.

I don't want to say that medication is the cure, because every person's experience with mental illness is different, and treatments must be tailored to individuals' needs. But in my particular case, things have only gotten better since I first reached out for help from my friends. Now, in my senior year at Rice, I feel that I have grown into the "best version of myself," so to speak; while depression still weighs on me from time to time, I feel better prepared to handle any issues that come my way. But if I hadn't overcome that initial paralyzing stigma, I don't know where I'd be today. I don't even know if I'd be here, writing for my peers and mentors.

Luckily, I managed to persevere through the worst of my depression without any damage to myself, my relationships with others or my career at Rice. Not everyone is so lucky. For this reason, I decided to act. I knew that even though what I went through was painful, I wasn't the only one in pain, and I wanted to achieve something positive out of what had been such a negative period in my life.

It is my hope that, by sharing my story, I can take a tangible step towards stigma reduction: by getting people talking about mental illnesses, changing individuals' perceptions of what mental illness looks like or inspiring other sufferers to seek help for their own troubles.

Kelle Kampa is a Hanszen College senior and co-coordinator of Rice Health Advisors.

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