Depression at Western

More students than ever are breaking the stigma and reaching out for help, but Western is struggling to meet the increasing demand

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Illustration: Despressed Western students lining into

ALONE AMONG MANY. As many sufferers attest, depression often afflicts those who don’t have any visible situational problems, making them feel alone even in the presence of others.

You’d never think the popular guy, surrounded by friends, good at everything he does, would be suffering from loneliness and depression.

Ivey student Ben Gordon is the popular guy. He has lots of friends, was on the rowing team and has always done well in school. Despite his appearance of “having it all together,” Gordon has suffered from depression for much his time at Western.

“There’s this idea that people who have depression come from bad upbringings, but that’s not true,” Gordon said.

“I went to private school and I have a great family. I came here with a 96 per cent average out of high school, and I was always popular and always had friends.

“For me, I could be surrounded by people and still be alone.”

Social science student and University Students’ Council VP-campus issues Pedro Lopes is also the popular guy.

He’s always been highly involved in student government, he was an outgoing soph, and many of his friends can attest he’s always the first person to buy everyone a round at the bar.

Last week, however, Lopes’ personal problems and their effect on his job performance were discussed in a confidential Council session, resulting in a four-week suspension from his position.

The suspension and internal USC dialogue leading up to it pushed Lopes to reveal his personal struggle with depression.

“I think we have a unique situation at Western,” Lopes said. “You come into this school and are met with a lifestyle, and you can see a lot of what Western is supposed to be is this important social scene, and the country-club university, and everybody is partying and having a good time.

“If you don’t fit into that, or even if you do, it can be very troublesome because you can get lost.”

Gordon said much of his depression was based on anxiety about succeeding in school and meeting people’s expectations.

“I had to be the Type-A student who did everything and I didn’t want to let my parents down,” Gordon said. “It just came to a point where I wasn’t happy with my life and I didn’t feel like I could count on anybody.

“It was kind of an abandonment complex.”

Gordon and Lopes aren’t alone. At any given time, almost three million Canadians suffer from serious depression, and university is a time when many will experience mental health problems for the first time.

Sitting depressed on a staircase

“Students, especially new students, are under a lot of pressure,” said Dawn White, director of the London Mental Health Crisis Centre. “They may be leaving home for the first time, they are in a new environment, the academic requirements may be very different from what they’re used to and they can feel tremendous pressure.”

White said because of stigmas surrounding mental illness, many people don’t seek help. According to the Ontario Ministry of Health, depression is the most treatable mental illness, but only one in 10 sufferers seeks medical treatment.

In October, Gordon decided he needed help but met many obstacles at Western.

Gordon saw a doctor at Student Health Services who spoke to him and diagnosed him with hypomanic depression. She prescribed medication, but the medication didn’t work for him.

Gordon said he was really just looking for someone who wasn’t in his circle of friends to talk to. The doctor suggested he talk to a psychotherapist, but Gordon found it would take months to find a counsellor at the Student Development Services or SHS, so he didn’t bother making an appointment.

While Western’s student population has grown by 5,000 over the past 10 years, SDS hasn’t expanded its core psychological services staff in over 20 years. Due to a city-wide doctor shortage, SHS hasn’t increased its services by much either.

Student Health Services also offers counselling, and the two services refer students to each other, but, according to director Dr. Tom Macfarlane, SHS works from a psychiatric approach.

Macfarlane said SHS has a long waiting list for psychiatric counselling appointments and the list usually peaks around Christmas and final exams.

Gail Hutchinson, psychologist and director of SDS, said the number of students seeking help at Western is increasing constantly.

“The demand has always been creeping up, but now it’s just exploded. I’m sure the waiting list at this time of year has over 100 names on it, which I hate to say, because five years ago it would have only been 40.”

Hutchinson said SDS uses a triage system in which all students are seen once and seen as quickly as their individual needs demand.

“If it’s something really serious, the student is seen the same day,” she said. “We’re taking every case seriously and doing everything we can.”

She added the waiting list is made up of students waiting for ongoing counselling services.

University Students’ Council President Fab Dolan said he hears more student complaints about SHS than about any other ancillary service at Western.

In response to student concerns about wait lists, the USC increased next year’s student health plan to include $500 per student for psychological counselling so students can go off campus and pay to see a counsellor.

Gordon and Lopes both said depression and mental illness will remain stigmatized at Western until the topic becomes less taboo and Western rectifies its inability to deal with its growing waiting lists.

“The fact that people just aren’t talking about this should be an indication that there’s a problem,” Gordon said.

"with files from Ravi Amarnath, Jen Davidson and Dave Ward

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