Andrea Paquette describes her former self as a bad ass. At 16, the Sudbury, Ontario, native had dropped out of high school, drank and smoked heavily, and was headed down a “destructive” path. It wasn’t until she was 26 and living in Victoria that she learned she had bipolar disorder. She says the diagnosis helped her understand much of her negative behaviour.
“It explained a lot about my life: the self-medication, the moods and depression,” Paquette says on the line from Vancouver Island, where she’s doing a master’s degree in political science at the University of Victoria. She says that it wasn’t until she hit rock bottom—experiencing psychosis, hearing voices, and having delusions—that she finally got the help she needed. And even then, she says, it took four years for her to find the combination of medications—antidepressants and antipsychotics—that worked for her.
Aside from pursuing her educational goals, Paquette has another mission in life: to reach out to those with mental illness, young people and students in particular, and help get rid of the accompanying stigma.
“I want to show people that no matter how low you go, there is always a way out,” says the 32-year-old Paquette. “You can live an extraordinary life even if you have a mental illness.”
To raise awareness of mental-health issues, Paquette recently launched a Web site called Bipolar Babe. There, she has a blog, a chat room, a section with other people’s personal stories, and more.
With the fall term now in session, Paquette is hoping that more university and college students will tune in to mental well-being, even if they don’t have a mental illness themselves.
“A lot of kids are transitioning from high school, or they’re away from home for the first time, and that’s a lot of stress,” she explains. “There are a lot of questions, and a lot of things they’re discovering about themselves.”¦They need to be cognizant of their sleep. It can all be very damaging to your studies and to your health.
“Some people might have feelings like, ”˜Why can’t I get out of bed? Why do I feel paranoid all the time? Why do I feel like people are talking about me?’ I’m not a doctor, but I can share my personal experience.” The Canadian Mental Health Association’s B.C. branch is reaching out to students through its Healthy Minds, Healthy Campuses initiative, now in its third year. The project’s goal is to create a unified vision across the province when it comes to promoting mental health at postsecondary institutions.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, project coordinator Jonny Morris explains that multiple factors can compromise students’ mental health.
“They’re in a new environment, they have freer access to substances, they might have a different social network and be removed from their family. It’s a whole complex picture of variables.”
When it comes to alcohol and drugs, Morris says that although it’s common for students to experiment and figure out their limits, such behaviour can exacerbate an underlying mental-health issue or be used as a coping mechanism.
A survey conducted in 2007 of nearly 1,500 SFU students found that 17.5 percent reported experiencing depression, 12 percent had an anxiety disorder, and 10 percent experienced seasonal affective disorder. Further, 18 percent reported that at least one of those conditions affected their academic performance. Of that 18 percent, 55 percent said they felt hopeless as a result, and just over 39 percent said they felt so depressed that they were having trouble functioning.
Morris encourages those having trouble to get help before things get worse: “People need to know they’re not alone and that it’s okay to ask for help.”
Cheryl Washburn, director of counselling services at UBC, agrees that going to university can be anxiety-provoking, particularly for students who are coming straight out of high school.
“There are a lot of changes students are having to contend with,” Washburn says in a phone interview. “Change is stressful, even if it’s good change. Students coming out of Grade 12 have increased responsibility and freedom. They’re learning to manage their life in its entirety—managing their own time, living in residence or off-campus, organizing their budget, organizing their food, getting used to new surroundings.
“Another thing that’s often overlooked is the shifting or changing relationships with their family at home. It’s a huge transition, and having to renegotiate those relationships can be pretty significant.”
Washburn stresses that it’s vital for students who have preexisting mental-health conditions to be in touch with their health-care provider upon starting school in order to ensure “continuity of care”.
Strategies all students can use for coping with the stress of starting postsecondary education include joining clubs or student organizations, getting involved in campus life, and meeting other people.
“It’s about having a healthy balance,” Washburn says. “Staying connected, engaged, leads to a successful academic experience.”
UBC has its own Healthy Minds program, which aims to help students take care of their physical, mental, and emotional well-being by encouraging basic healthy habits like eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising, as well as determining when they’re most productive in terms of studying while still making time for fun and relaxation.
“It’s important to build students’ capacity to really manage and maintain their personal well-being,” Washburn says.
Paquette is a firm believer in leading a healthy, balanced life. Besides medication, she says that exercise, as well as being in a loving relationship, has helped her stay well. She also hopes that speaking openly about her own experiences will encourage others to seek help—and let go of stereotypical views of mental illness.
“When you talk to other people”¦and share your experiences, it opens up a completely new world of hope,” she says. “There needs to be open conversations free of stigma. It comes down to everyone coming together and changing the image of mental illness forever.”