Middlebury College student shines a light on depression

MIDDLEBURY — As a 17-year-old senior at Middlebury Union High School, Hannah Quinn attempted suicide. No one knew what had happened, and for two years she did not share her ordeal with friends or family.
Now, Quinn is speaking out about depression and suicide. Currently a junior at Middlebury College, Quinn hopes to open a dialogue on mental health issues on campus.
Initially hesitant to share her story, Quinn said she was inspired by a fellow student who shared her story with depression.
Quinn created a blog, called “Mental Health at Midd,” and authored a post describing her struggle with depression and the stigma surrounding mental health issues; it is online at mentalhealthatmidd.wordpress.com. She said she wasn’t sure how it would be received.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what would happen when I posted my story,” Quinn said in an interview last week, conducted via email because she is studying in South Africa this semester. “I felt confident that at the very least, it would spark meaningful conversations and provide a sense of comfort to others dealing with similar issues.”
To date, the post has garnered more than 2,800 views. Quinn has received 80 messages from friends and strangers expressing support.
“A lot of responses were from people with similar struggles who were thankful to hear someone speak up about them,” Quinn said. “Many Middlebury students who reached out told me they are willing to help with whatever comes next and are happy to see that something is being done on campus.”
Quinn said she was surprised by the number of men who shared stories of depression, and said that men are often more reluctant to talk openly about the subject.
“I think it can be even more difficult sometimes for me because of our society’s warped view of masculinity,” Quinn said. “Men don’t want to be perceived as weak or too emotional.”
Quinn plans to reach out to students and professional staff when she returns to campus this winter.
“I will organize a meeting in January and invite all of the students who reached out to me to attend, as well as anyone else who’s interested,” Quinn said. “Maybe we will hold a student panel discussion, a 5K run to raise money and awareness, an art exhibit, or even start a new student organization. The possibilities are endless.”
Quinn also hopes to continue the blog by sharing other students’ stories.
“This was not the original intent, but I think the Middlebury community could really benefit from hearing a range of voices and experiences, and it would be a way to keep the discussion going,” Quinn said. “Consistency is key to combating stigma.”
Quinn said an ongoing discussion is important to addressing mental health issues, which are too often discussed when crises, such as suicides, occur.
“Too often, we talk about depression and suicide only after a tragedy and then the world moves on to the next trending topic,” she said. “A consistent blog showcasing a variety of experiences would help to normalize these issues, expose misconceptions and create solidarity within the community.”
On college campuses across the country, depression is pervasive. According to a 2011 study by the National Institute of Mental Health, 30 percent of students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans, though it is the third leading cause among people aged 15 to 24.
Research conducted by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center found that 6.6 and 7.5 percent of undergraduate students nationwide seriously considered suicide. Slightly more than 1 percent actually attempted to end their own lives. Thankfully, Middlebury College officials said there hadn’t been a suicide on campus in recent memory.
It’s not just Quinn that hopes to bring awareness of depression to the forefront of students’ minds. Emma McDonald of the Middlebury Campus published an article Oct. 8 detailing the struggles students face and how they can cope with depression.
McDonald reported that half of college students experience symptoms of depression at some point in their studies.
“Most students at the college barely have enough time to get all their work done when they are at their most energetic, so when depression is added into the mix, it is almost impossible to accomplish what you need to be a successful student,” McDonald wrote.
Like Quinn, McDonald stressed that depression and mental illness should not be stigmatized.
“Depression is nothing to be ashamed of, but it should not be taken lightly either,” McDonald wrote.
Gus Jordan, the executive director of Health and Counseling Services at the college, said his office is always looking for ways to educate students on what mental health resources they can use.
“We’re always looking for new ways to help students understand what is available, and ease access to our services,” he said.
About 40 to 45 percent of each class seeks out the counseling service at some point in their academic career, Jordan said. His team of psychologists and master’s-level counselors account for about 80 counseling sessions per week.
Jordan explained that college students are particularly vulnerable to depression for two principal reasons: they are leaving their traditional support systems, and they may be unprepared for the academic rigors of college.
“Fortunately, there’s good treatment out there,” Jordan said. “Students are able to come and manage, even in a stressful situation like Middlebury.”
Undergraduates can seek mental health services in both a formal and informal way. The campus has a chapter of Active Minds, a national organization dedicated to raising awareness of mental illness. Jordan also credited the Middlebury Campus for publishing articles about mental health issues.
“Those are some of the ways students are trying to inform each other,” Jordan said.
In her blog post, Quinn said she felt she made the right choice by sharing her struggles with depression with friends and family. She learned that several members in her extended family suffered from depression, which scientists say is not uncommon.
Quinn conceded that she was uncomfortable sharing such a private part of her life publicly, but convinced herself that if she could reassure just one person that they do not suffer alone, it was the right decision.
“At the risk of embarrassment or judgment, if even one person reads this and feels a little bit of comfort, it’s worth the risk,” she wrote.

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