Anna Sanders is completely at ease; no hint of sadness, no worry crosses her friendly, beaming face. Everything from her tousled brown hair down to her sparkling silver slippers says effortless. The crispness of her cardigan and skirt ensemble is unmistakably New England, (think Ralph Lauren catalog, but less stuffy). The first time we meet, Sanders’ enthusiasm is clear, her foot bouncing as she tells her story.
It was on a Sunday afternoon in October 2008, she tells me, eyes dropping to the floor as she thinks. Her enthusiasm wavers and it becomes painfully clear that sharing this, even anonymously, is difficult. “I had been at work. I remember having this feeling of this nervous energy; I was shaking, breathing heavily. I was having a panic attack,” she says. Sanders left work that day, panic coursing through her, hoping to find relief once she returned to her apartment.
In her room, the fear, the racing thoughts, the deep melancholy became overwhelming. “I was so tired of having my life ruled by my depression and my anxiety that I picked up a bottle of my antidepressants, and I poured them out on my bed planning to overdose,” she says. At this point Sanders was sobbing uncontrollably. Then, something inside her snapped. Frenetic nervousness still buzzing inside, the SESP junior called the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) emergency line. With trembling fingers clutching her phone, she confessed she was going to commit suicide.
She would become one of about 1,800 students who used CAPS last school year. According to CAPS psychologist Dr. Wei-Jen Huang, 11 percent of Northwestern students make use of university psychological services, which is twice that of similarly ranked universities. At Northwestern, he says, “everybody’s so smart, but everyone is struggling with the question of, ‘Am I good enough?’” Students strive to maintain a perfect façade, a flawless version of themselves, hoping it will get them the success they’ve been working so hard to attain, he says.
But statistics only tell so much. Anna Sanders isn’t just a number recorded in yet another survey. The have-it-all-sorority girl could be anyone, keeping a secret she fears no one will understand.
It’s that acceptance that seems lacking among Northwestern students. “Northwestern is not a very safe environment. I have so many students who feel so isolated and lonely, but when we’re able to create a safe place for them they start to be more real and become more loving,” Huang says. He specializes in couples therapy but works with students with a wide range of issues.
“The stigma associated with seeking help from CAPS at this university is a big obstacle, despite having the resources we have, we need everybody’s help to get the positive message out,” Huang says. Part of the reason, he says, is particularly because of the fear of imperfection. They compare themselves to other students, and in doing so, create the false sense that they can never achieve enough. Students are much too busy, he says, piling on extracurricular activities, becoming leaders of student groups, all in the hopes of standing out among the competition.
Huang says that at CAPS, a safe environment, a place for reflection and different perspectives, is created. The problem is reaching students in the first place. Getting the word out efficiently, particularly when all of their clinicians focus primarily on serving students, becomes an obstacle. “We don’t know how to resolve those kinds of issues. We have all of these services, and we’re here to help but we need students’ help also,” he says.
For Sanders, keeping her struggle with mental illness private was something she had been doing for months. That is, until that October afternoon. Her sophomore year was marked by a romantic relationship, one she calls “really unhealthy on many levels.” Her boyfriend criticized her, pointed out flaws in her body and made fun of her intelligence. She stayed in the relationship because she was convinced it would make her happy. Their breakup at the end of last school year sent her into a deep depression and led into “the worst summer of my life,” she says.
During that summer, Sanders started seeing a therapist from the Evanston area and began taking antidepressants. Even though she sought treatment, she still isolated herself from her friends. She became distant, fearing the start of Fall Quarter and seeing her ex-boyfriend. When she returned, he barraged her with text messages and phone calls and began “telling people that [she] was a backstabber and a slut.”
As his harassment escalated, so did her anxieties, building to the point where Sanders would wrench at the sound of any phone ring. “I know this sounds crazy but something that made me stay in that relationship was the idea of giving off an image of perfection,” she says. She wanted to be the girl that had everything, the girl that had her whole life in spotless order, and was willing to make unhealthy choices to keep that façade firmly in place.
And so the pressure to keep face grew, until that Sunday afternoon in October. The weeks following her suicide attempt were a blur of hospital stays and therapy sessions. She chose to stay at Advocate Lutheran General, in nearby Park Ridge, trying to keep her struggles as private as possible. “I didn’t want anyone to find out that this had anything to do with my ex boyfriend because if he knew that he still had that power over me, that was just one more thing he would have over me that he could use to manipulate and use me,” she says. It was during her time in the hospital’s group therapy that she gained perspective. “These weren’t crazy people, they weren’t ‘mental patients.’ These were people who somewhere in their life had experienced a loss—be it of another person or part of themselves,” she says. The amount of love and acceptance she got from her fellow group members, she told me, was unlike anything she had ever gotten from even her closest friends.
The CAPS-ASG student committee serves to bridge the gap between students and psychological services, working to build a more accepting community at Northwestern. They work to foster mental health awareness and communication across campus, organizing events like Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Current committee board chair Allison Gallerani says that getting the word out about planned events is always a struggle: The point of the committee is to reach as many students as possible about counseling services, but events are so full that CAPS can’t keep up.
“It’s not a conversation that’s happening on campus, but the resources are being used,” Gallerani says. It isn’t surprising when she tells me that the stress clinics offered by CAPS are consistently full. However, the committee can only do so much, their actions being hindered in part by CAPS itself. “Starting student-run discussion groups or even a student hot line would help reduce stigma, but it introduces a lot of liability issues,” she says.
Josh Petersen started using CAPS this Fall Quarter and is very much among those not quite comfortable talking about mental health, especially his own. “My main fear is that people will—not think that I’m crazy or anything like that—I don’t want it to be something that defines me,” he says. The Medill junior is not afraid of defining himself, however. He doesn’t go as far as calling himself a hipster, but admits that his reputation has always hovered in the area of “cool.” His Ray-Ban framed face is set to somewhere between bored and amused, and he tugs out the cuff of his shirt from under the sleeve of his argyle sweater regularly. For him, seeking the help of CAPS was a long time coming.
Petersen’s sophomore year was lost in a sea of drugs, alcohol and endless parties. Then a newly minted frat brother, he wanted to take advantage of a scene he might not be a part of once he graduated. His lifestyle began to take a toll on his academic career, his motivation to study quickly fading as the year drew on.
After failing two classes and making lackluster grades in the classes he did pass, he was placed on probation based on financial aid regulations. Despite advice from his girlfriend to seek counseling for his growing apathy and lack of motivation, Petersen was hesitant and unwilling to admit that his social life was encroaching on his ability to perform academically. He put it off until this fall, realizing he couldn’t continue to destroy his life.
Gallerani says one step toward more open conversation about mental health on campus might be an unaffiliated student group to pick up where CAPS leaves off. Northwestern had this option, not long ago, in the form of the NU Mental Health Alliance. The group began at the end of Spring Quarter 2008 with the goal of creating an inclusive environment to discuss mental health issues, reducing stigma and serving as a liaison between students and on and off-campus resources. According to publicity chair and Weinberg junior Derek Tam, the group experienced its highest member activity during fall of 2008, as they helped organize the vigil for Trevor Boehm, a student who had gone missing that quarter. Throughout the following months, the group tried to gain recognition from the university but membership fizzled off, and by the end of the 2009 school year, the group fell apart. “The campus as a whole wasn’t really receptive to the whole thing. In a sense, I guess we were limited by the very thing about the Northwestern community we were trying to break down: this reluctance to talk about mental health issues,” Tam says.
NUMHA’s former services coordinator, Weinberg junior Jessica Martinson, says she hopes that despite lack of interest in the group, people can start talking about mental health. “It’s important that people are able to talk freely about how they’re feeling and what they’re going through. There is a huge pressure on this campus to be perfect — to get the grades, to be super-involved. Often, you feel guilty if you are not totally stressed out,” she says.
During his treatment, Petersen really only wanted a prescription for Adderall and a pat on the back: anything to help him regain focus. What he got instead was a series of sessions with a therapist and a plan of action. He received advice on organization, stress relief and how to battle apathy. Petersen was never diagnosed with a mental illness, but sees therapy as an important step in maintaining a healthy mental state. “If I had just gone and got some drugs to help me focus, I would have gotten results—maybe good results—while I was taking them,” says Petersen. “I feel like what they’re doing for me now is going to keep me from having a breakdown five years from now and in my career, staying in bed all day when the consequences are dire. What I’ve received is better in the end than what I expected,” he says.
Though he’s gained so much, he didn’t immediately tell even his closest friends. “I wanted to feel it out first,” he says. “Our school is very gossipy. Everyone wants to know everyone else’s business.” Part of what keeps Petersen from opening up to his friends about it more is that he doesn’t want to burden them. “I don’t think my friends care enough to know personal details that I don’t offer to them in the first place,” he says. “Generally I assume that unless someone knows what I’m going through, most people don’t want to deal with other people’s problems because they have their own problems.”