Arthur '06 struggles with stigma of mental illness

by Anna Parachkevova | 5/18/04 5:00am

The lounge on the second floor of Dick's House, where the College's counseling services are located, rarely lacks visitors. But despite the reported increase in the number of students seeking counseling over the past year, a shroud of silence still prevails over the topic of mental illness.

Lindsey Arthur '06 is among the few willing to speak up. Arthur was first diagnosed with manic depression when she was 16.

Since coming to Dartmouth, Arthur has gone through two severe manic-depressive episodes. In the winter, she found herself unable to take her final exams and received incomplete grades for the term.

"I was stuck in bed. I could not even get myself to reply to Blitz. I called an adult on campus, whom I really trust and who I knew would help me. She came to pick me up and took me to Dick's House, where I spent a week," Arthur said.

Her professors were sympathetic, she said, although she did not give them specific details about what her medical problems were.

"I did not feel comfortable telling them about it," she said.

The stigma attached to mental illness, which some see as self-induced, silences many who have struggled with it, Arthur said.

"Looking at you, people see you as being perfectly healthy," she said. "Mental illness is the 'invisible' disability."

While on the exterior, Arthur easily blends into the crowd of Dartmouth students, her experience is quite different.

Because of the side effects that some medication can have, those suffering from chronic mental illness have to pay more attention to their lifestyles, she added. Arthur is currently taking lithium and other mood-stabilizing medication.

Lithium can have side effects such as fatigue and kidney and liver damage. Getting a lot of sleep and not being able to drink have made Arthur's experience at Dartmouth harder than those of other students, she said.

"Not being able to go out as often could be tough," Arthur said, "especially on this campus."

The social scene is not the only factor that can strain those diagnosed with mental illness. The demanding academic environment at Dartmouth, especially the need to meet deadlines, can also prove difficult, Arthur said.

"Unlike others, we are even more sensitive to stress, and it becomes an overwhelming daily struggle," Arthur explained.

Crises can manifest themselves in different ways and start with the need to make a simple decision, Arthur said. The difficulty of making the decision often leads to despair and frustration, which ultimately translates into inaction and self-destructive behavior.

"It turns into a cycle, and there is nothing or no one to pull you out of it," Arthur said.

Recent efforts to increase awareness about mental illness have brought Active Minds, a student-run mental health awareness and advocacy organization, to campus. Its Dartmouth chapter, founded Winter term, provides both information and a support network.

Arthur said she has benefited from the organization as well as support from her friends.

Nearly one fourth of undergraduates have used the counseling services offered at Dick's House during the last year, a 10 percent increase from last year, The Dartmouth reported recently. Since the beginning of Spring term, the campus has seen a rise in the number of students seeking counseling.

While much of the campus exudes happiness with the advent of spring, Arthur said no correlation exists for her between the warm, sunny weather and her emotional condition.

"If I feel depressed during the winter, I can blame it on the weather and assume it is something normal, but if I feel depressed during the spring, that's when I really start freaking out," she said.

Arthur first started suffering from depression while still in high school.

"Having no energy and being sad all the time was not normal for a teenager," Arthur said.

Her parents, both diagnosed with depression, noticed that Arthur was exhibiting some of the symptoms associated with depression, and pushed her to seek treatment.

Since then, she has seen six different therapists. Not every therapist will give the same treatment. And since most people do not automatically click with their first match, they get discouraged, she added.

"That's why it is important not to give up and keep on trying until you find someone you like," Arthur said.