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Talking About the Hard Parts

On a new site, students share small details of big problems

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Select from topics above to hear students share their stories from a collection of testimonials on the new mental health services Web site.

It sounds like the makings of a nightmare: sitting in front of a camera and talking about the most difficult and personal struggle of your life — a bout with depression, an eating disorder, a sexually transmitted disease — knowing that it will be posted online for millions to see.

But that is exactly what a handful of BU students have done. The videos they made can be found on the University’s new mental health services Web site, which launched in mid-January and features videos of nine students sharing stories about alcohol and drug use, sexual assault, and other problems that don’t often appear in public forums. Each first-person account is accompanied by a list of resources that students can tap for help, on and off campus.

“We’re hoping to destigmatize getting help,” says Margaret Ross, the director of behavioral medicine at Student Health Services (SHS). “If students can see other students talking about these things, it will encourage them to come in.”

Work on the site began in January 2009, Ross says, at a mental health roundtable that pulled together branches of Student Health Services and a range of offices involved in student care, from the BU Police Department to the University Chaplains and the athletics department.

“Out of that meeting came a very clear mandate to develop a way for students to know where to go on campus if they have a certain problem,” Ross says.

The concept morphed from an information grid to a collection of student video testimonials. Ross says all of the work was completely unscripted, with students speaking from either personal experience or as advocates of a cause. And at the request of some parents, students’ names do not appear to avoid discrimination in future job searches.

“It’s such a gift that they’ve done this,” says Ross, who is unabashedly proud of the student participants. “I feel a little bit like I’ve given birth.”

One segment, on academic issues, was filmed with a School of Medicine graduate student who has struggled with ADHD since childhood. A psychiatrist at BU’s behavioral medicine helped him deal with his learning disability.

When asked to share his story, he says, he didn’t hesitate. “I feel comfortable with myself, so I don’t mind talking openly about the situation,” he says. “This is sort of a necessary site where information can be accessed very easily and is straightforward from the student.”

Although he was diagnosed with ADHD in high school, the student didn’t seek help until he became concerned about his undergraduate education. His advice to students with learning disabilities: “Don’t wait. If you think there is an issue, address it. The quicker you address it, the sooner you can get help and get on with life.”

The College of Arts & Sciences senior who spoke about her depression says it wasn’t caused by any single event, but was more a creeping suspicion that something was wrong. Once a straight-A student, she found that she no longer cared about school, she skipped classes, and she just wanted to sleep. Still, it wasn’t until she started cutting herself that she reached for help. She and a roommate plugged in “BU + mental health” to a search engine and found mental health services at SHS behavioral medicine.

“I waited until I couldn’t wait anymore,” she says. On her psychiatrist’s advice, she took a leave of absence and continued seeing a counselor at home.

Now, back at BU after a successful study abroad semester, she recognizes the signs of depression and knows how to deal with it. She says that counseling helped her learn how to take care of herself.

“You’re not weird if you’re depressed,” she says. “Don’t isolate yourself. Just talk about it.”

Speaking about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, a Sargent College senior says she would urge all students to get tested. Although she’s never tested positive herself, she has friends who have.

“People tend to live in a bubble — they think, oh, that won’t happen to me,” she says. “This is more prevalent than people think. HIV or other sexually transmitted infections are asymptomatic. You don’t even know that you have it when you have it.”

Getting tested takes courage, she acknowledges, but it’s easy to do on campus, she says. Mental health representatives offer counseling along with testing, explain the risks of being sexually active, and provide students with referrals to support groups.

If infected students don’t get tested, she says, they could lose their chance of being cured or — worse — die young.

Her best advice: don’t get infected. “Just make sure you use a condom or other safety measures,” she says. If it’s too late for prevention, there’s still hope. “It’s not over. Your life still goes on. You just need to take precautions. It is something you can live with.”

Stress can be a good thing. Or it can be bad. In the case of one graduate student, it was bad enough to be crippling. She was a resident assistant, worked 20 hours a week serving tables, was a club president, had many friends and a boyfriend, was enrolled in five classes, and was applying to graduate school. Ultimately, her responsibilities overwhelmed her.

After several visits to Student Health Services for sleeping problems (she hadn’t slept in almost two weeks), she was referred to a mental health counselor.

“My counselor would hear me out in ways that no one else would,” she says, “and would talk things through with me. I really needed to sit down and talks things through so that I could prioritize and not stress out about everything.”

A month later, she was sleeping better and was managing to get her work done without sacrificing her personal life. Her advice to students who find themselves in her shoes is to get help — even if they think they don’t need it.

“It helps to have someone there to talk things through with you,” she says, “someone who’s seen it before and is experienced and can give you legitimate, long-lasting advice that really helps — which is something that my friends or my family couldn’t give me.”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Talking About the Hard Parts

  • Anonymous on 02.02.2010 at 7:23 am

    Thank You

    Thank you to these people. I can only imagine how hard it was to speak so openly about personal issues. I am sure many people can relate with your issues. It is quite inspiring to hear your stories!

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