Opinion: Responding to the unexpected

By Sam Starkey | April 3, 2019 5:38pm
Sam Starkey shares her personal mental health story in hopes that it will change the way the University handles mental health emergencies.
Media Credit: Megan Cahill / The Beacon

A year ago, my body was physically here and healthy. Mentally, not so much. 

In the spring of 2018, I decided to run for a position to serve on our student government. You may have even seen my face on posters aside a fierce young woman. The two of us were running for ASUP President and Vice President. Then, I mysteriously withdrew from the race due to mental health reasons. Beginning in March, my brain began a battle between medication intended to regain my sanity and its natural chemically imbalanced state. 

The reality I experienced was overpowering. Rather than the typical college stressors of papers, various relationships and the ‘what am I going to do with my life?’, I found that none of that seemed to matter to me anymore. Instead, I was overwhelmed with an unexplainable barrage of thoughts about really understanding life — the conviction that I was destined to save people and the belief that my existence was going to end soon. I was behaving so differently that the people around me didn’t recognize me. 

After intervention, I was treated with anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers intended to restore balance. I did my best to return to my normal life, though it was not enough. I was told by a doctor that neurologically, what was naturally happening in my brain is analogous to the experience of taking methamphetamines. It was like I was on drugs despite never taking any. I was diagnosed with manic-depressive illness, also known as bipolar disorder. 

This does not mean that I have massive mood swings, where I feel really happy one minute and then super sad the next. Bipolar often gets thrown around mindlessly to describe mood variability or even the status of the weather. But that’s not what bipolar disorder is. Rather, with the unexplainable chemical imbalance, this health condition enables the brain to experience seemingly impossible extremes of moods. This is either through extreme lows — depression — or through extreme highs — mania. Last spring, without any warning or indication, I found myself experiencing mania, which eventually resulted in a week-long stay in a psychiatric unit. Thanks to supportive professors, I took incompletes in all my classes and left UP three weeks early to return home and focus on my health. 

Stigma surrounds mental illness. For someone who has never experienced what it is like to be mentally unhealthy, it’s hard to conceptualize. We all feel sad, anxious or happy at times. How is that different from depression, anxiety or mania? When considering the status of our mental health, understanding what is within and outside of our control is complicated. And frankly, this discussion extends far beyond what could be addressed in 1,200 words or less. 

A paragraph of policy on every syllabus is not enough to demonstrate that UP prioritizes mental health. The Beacon has published interesting articles to continue the conversation and Active Minds plans lovely, informative events and awareness around the issues. These efforts do not go unnoticed and I am grateful for this energy and courage. Though I know this isn’t the intent, I fear the conversation around mental health is often limited to depression, anxiety and the need to holistically self-care. 

When I experienced a recognizable manic episode, the protocol was to take me to the top floor of Orrico hall to see a counselor. The professional I saw at that pivotal point responded to my obvious mental crisis in a way that demonstrated no concern for my safety. Without any kind of plan, resources or warning I was simply sent home to a living situation unknown to the health center. Fortunately, my housemates are also my best friends who have my best interest in mind. However, their ability to care for me was limited as they understandably lack psychiatric training, and have their own busy schedules. Within hours, my mental state escalated and I found myself riding in an ambulance destined for the emergency psychiatric unit of a hospital.

I am certain that if I was diabetic and experiencing hypoglycemia, the protocol would not be to call my mother who lives 1,000 miles away, essentially tell her that I had no place on this campus and then escort me home via Public Safety. It would not be to place me in the care of other college students, and when those students felt understandably overwhelmed asking for help, solely refer them to a crisis hotline. I am convinced that if my health crisis was physical rather than mental, the protocol followed would not be to wipe their hands clean of the situation, without concern for who would care for me and how my safety would be managed.

It’s true too that inherent systemic inequalities and issues surrounding mental illness extend far beyond the bluff. 

So, why write an op-ed? I didn’t write to obtain pity, or draw attention to myself. I write to aid in dismantling stigma. I write for those who cannot write. I write for those who aren’t yet diagnosed and for those who are. I write to bring attention to those silently struggling among us. 

There is no way to know if or when a life-changing trauma will happen to you. The chances are, at some point, trauma has already or will affect you. Whether it be sexual assault, loss of a loved one, news of a life-changing health condition, financial stress or any other adverse experience. We all fight our own battles, big or small, with or without warning.

There is, however, a way to know how we treat each other; how we respond to crisis or uncomfortable situations that don’t have an immediately clear, ‘right’ response. We have agency in how and when we choose to take action and stand up for those most vulnerable. My hope is that we can be aware that unexpected circumstances can happen at any time. I hope that individuals who make up a larger UP community can recognize, advocate for and learn from those that experience unexpected trauma. I hope my story can encourage others to leverage their vulnerability to share the adverse experiences they’re been though. I hope to humbly remind of the necessity of empathy and to continue the conversation.

Sam Starkey is a student at University of Portland. She can be reached at starkey19@up.edu.