I thought mental distress was just part of student life. It’s not.

McMaster sociology grad student Adam Grearson knows first-hand what it's like to experience psychological distress. But he's working to help other students avoid falling into the cracks that once threatened his life.


By Adam Grearson

In 2009, I was finishing off a gap year after high school. I’d made straight As and taken many extra credits (my history teacher called me an “intellectual sponge”). I lived with my mom in Trenton and worked part-time at a dollar store.

Around me, people saw great promise and potential in my future. They thought I was a loner, but they didn’t know about the depression that hit in Grade 12 and caused me to isolate myself even more. They didn’t know about my delusions or hallucinations, or how my behaviour was spiralling out of control.

They didn’t know about my suicide plan.

I thought my feelings were regular teenage angst. I never realized that the increasingly intense fears that people were out to get me, or the idea I was an overly-important person were delusions, symptomatic of schizophrenia.

I didn’t know that normalizing and downplaying psychological distress is pretty typical when you have an undiagnosed mental illness.

By the end of my gap year, my performance at work was suffering. I had no schoolwork to keep my mind busy.

And one night I snapped.

After a particularly fierce argument with my mother, reality slipped away — a classic symptom of schizophrenia. I was convinced she was kicking me out of the house (in reality she was merely exhausted and wanted to go to bed and talk more in the morning). I thought I was losing my home.

And in my head, voices were screaming at me that I should kill myself.

Somehow, I still had it in me to realize that taking my own life was not the best idea. I knew that I had to reach out to someone before I did something serious. I called my high school music teacher, who I knew well. He wasn’t home. (I don’t remember exactly what my message said, but it must have terrified him.)

When I couldn’t reach my music teacher, I called a law teacher to ask how much information I needed to disclose to the police if I called them. After being reassured that I could say as much or as little as I wanted to the police, I called 911.

The police arrived, explained the situation to my shocked mom and took me to the mental health wing of the Belleville General Hospital. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression and spent the next two months there under psychiatric care.

***

The most powerful memory I have from my time in the hospital was not wanting my mom to come and visit me. I was convinced that my schizophrenia made me a monster and that there was nothing I could do about it. I thought I was destined to be violent and aggressive. I was just like all of those sensationalized stories about people with mental illnesses who just “snapped.”

But we talked constantly, and my mom never once pulled away — or let me push her away. Finally, she convinced me that I was not a monster, and I let her come and see me in hospital.

When I was released from the hospital, nothing looked or felt the same. My medications made me lethargic and I slept a lot. My mom would force me to go on walks with her — we would walk to a grocery store or the pharmacy where I had my prescriptions filled. She would constantly talk to me on the way, hoping that I would respond. Even though I didn’t, mom kept talking to me. She wasn’t going to let her son fall away.

Eventually, I went from taking seven medications to taking two: one anti-psychotic and one anti-depressant, which I have faithfully taken ever since. I started attending regular therapy sessions. I went back to work at Dollarama.

I’m lucky my manager was so supportive, because work — along with my mom’s support and being in school — is one of the things that helps keep me balanced.

A bit more than four months after being hospitalized, I enrolled at Loyalist College in Belleville on a part-time course load. After I completed the General Arts and Science Certificate program with an A+ average, I got into Trent University and my mom and I moved to Peterborough.

When I was at Trent, my own experience with schizophrenia shaped my field of research. I completed an independent course under the supervision of Dr. Kristy Buccieri, studying the mental health and wellness needs of undergraduate students at Trent.

I wanted to take a “snapshot” of the mental health and wellness experience of undergraduates at that institution. As a follow-up, I further analyzed my data, and learned how I could take what I had learned in academia and bring it to the larger public.

I learned that a lot of undergraduates, even without an official diagnosis, were experiencing stigma. Student mental health and wellness had declined in recent years.

Perhaps most concerning was that one of the most common reasons students do not seek help is they think psychological distress is a normal part of life. Just as I had done as a teen, these students are normalizing distress because they think it is part of being in university.

***
I understand that schizophrenia is a chronic condition from which I will never fully recover. Expectations for people with schizophrenia are typically bleak. It is often debilitating, getting worse if you stop taking medication or don’t have a strong support network.

On the other hand, it can be very well managed with the right balance in life. I take my medication every day. I need my support network, especially my mom, who helps me stay firmly grounded in reality. And school and work help me remain busy and productive, always working toward a goal.
I try to set out some time each day for self-care: Playing my saxophones and listening to jazz music, or reading, or exercising and journaling.

Many people with mental health issues fall through the cracks because they can’t access the appropriate services in time due to stigma, lack of information or lack of support, to name a few reasons. I was lucky to have avoided the “crack.”

I want to be able to impact policy decisions that affect real people, which is largely why I came to McMaster for a Master’s degree in sociology. I am exploring themes of stigma, seeking help, psychological distress, and mental health service provision, this time among graduate students.

I want to learn how to better provide services to people with mental health issues. I want to be at the forefront with other researchers who are learning more about the needs of those with mental health issues and how to help prevent the onset of mental health crises.

Eventually, I want to do my PhD in sociology. I want to continue to study university students and their mental-health needs, this time with people at different universities. It’s time I move beyond statistical analysis and start interviewing people and learning in-depth about their experiences.

Adam Grearson is an MA student in the department of Sociology at McMaster University. He was awarded a Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. He is currently working on finalizing  an ethics application for his survey of McMaster graduate students’ mental health.

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If you or someone else you know is suffering psychological distress, please consider using one of these resources:

McMaster University

· Student Health and Wellness Education Programs

· McMaster Peer Support Line

· Student Health Education Center (SHEC)

· McMaster Athletics and Recreation

· McMaster Equity and Inclusion Office

McMaster Student Health and Wellness Centre

Greater Hamilton Community

· Canadian Mental Health Association (Hamilton)

· eMentalHealth.ca

· Mental Health Rights Coalition

· Sexual Assault Centre (SACHA)

· Hamilton Health Sciences

· St. Joseph’s Health Care

· Mental Health Helpline

· Telehealth Ontario

· Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST)

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