by Amanda Larkins, '15
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel that we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.
Virginia Woolf [Suicide note, 1941]
No two stories look the same; depression strikes people in individual ways. Virginia Woolf's battle with depression ended tragically. That is typically not the case, but depression can still take a heavy toll. It can manifest itself in severe anger or pure indifference. It can lead to dependence on a string of mind-numbing medications and even a visit to a psychiatric ward.
But common threads link all of these tales together: an illness, and a hope. And it is this hope that is the focus during the club meetings of Restoring Hope, a new club on the Whitworth campus.
Restoring Hope is a support group for students struggling with mental illness. Started by senior Caterina Tarvin at the beginning of the 2013-14 academic year, the main goal of the club is to provide a place where people feel safe to share their experiences and the darkness in their life. Mostly, they are a group of friends who are not embarrassed to be themselves. It is a place where jokes roll around the room and most of the time is spent in laughter. But there is no fear of the hard conversations. They are willing to talk about their dark times and their various battles with this isolating illness. Tarvin wants students to know, through this club and mental awareness week, that the face of mental illness is diverse and that you are not alone. She, with Restoring Hope, stands to be the voice of change against the stigma of depression.
The club and its members have also pushed for change on the Whitworth campus regarding depression and mental illness in general. What makes this a hard topic is the fact that it is difficult to identify as an outsider. Mental illness is not something that is worn on the chest like a sign. Individuals struggling with depression cannot be easily picked out of the crowd just by looking at them. It affects the blonde, blue-eyed beauty queen just as it plagues the reserved guy who chooses always to sit in the back of the room.
"Changing the image of depression is a step toward understanding the struggle," says Tarvin. What Restoring Hope and the Whitworth campus strive to achieve is an environment where mental illness can be discussed and identified.
The first step is knowing how to identify the signs of mental illness. According to Landon Crecelius, student success advocate, the best training method among staff is the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (CSSRS). This is a measurement tool that helps staff assess the signs of students who are struggling with mental illness and to gauge how much of a danger they are to themselves. Understanding and implementing the scale will allow staff and students to identify whether an individual is going to need help, he says.
Once you know where an individual stands, you are better equipped to refer him or her to Restoring Hope and one of its support members or to direct this person toward the counseling center. The common theme among Whitworth staff is that they want to take a relational approach. Similarly, club members do not see themselves as treating someone with a mental illness; rather, they are interacting with a person. Restoring Hope strives to be that relational connection.
The members of the group are unafraid of telling their individual struggles with depression. Each student's experience is unique and that is the point, said Tarvin. Each has distinctive dynamics that landed him or her where he or she is today.
Whitworth University senior Chaune Schafer, for example, grew up as an only child in a loving, but non-Christian home. She identified the source of her depression as seeing the brokenness in the world around her as she began to grow up. She struggled to find light and hope in her life. She involved herself in activities because she believed wholeheartedly that it was her responsibility to fix the bad parts of her life. She thought, "If I give 110 percent, if I am perfect, then nothing bad should happen." This is the attitude that she carried through middle school and high school. She then turned toward self-mutilation, drugs and alcohol to find a stimulus and a joy. Schafer took a year off and spent six months in South Africa with a friend. It was from South Africa, where she had been mostly enjoying her time away from any parental guidance, that she ended up applying to Whitworth.
In the latter part of high school she decided to go to youth group with some of the "weirder kids" at school. This was a turning point in her life, when she began to learn about Jesus and felt loved and embraced by that group more than ever before. Her new faith became a catalyst for change in her life, but she continued to struggle at home and with her friends. In her senior year of high school her two polar-opposite lives collided. The grace and mercy of Christ did not mesh with her suicidal thoughts. After graduation she spend some time in a psychiatric ward, a period she identifies as her "rock bottom." She was forced to address the fact that she could no longer live as she was living; she was forced to face her depression head-on.
By contrast, Whitworth University senior Elizabeth Fonken grew up the child of missionary parents in central Asia. Following what she found to be a traumatic move back to the United States, she gradually grew angry and bitter at her struggle to fit in during middle school. She felt socially isolated and embarrassed. During middle school and high school she tied her self-worth to her ability and success as a basketball player and others' views and opinions of her.
While Fonken never considered herself suicidal or clinically depressed, she did identify a lack of control and was knowingly hurting her friends and family. One day, she recalls, her mom sat her down and reminded her that she just needed to picture Jesus in her life always being a support. Imagining Jesus in the stands at her basketball game, always cheering despite a bad pass or missed shot, helped her make it through her most difficult times. While it was a little thing, Fonken described it as "successfully not struggling." She then became determined to always see the good in herself and others. It was a choice of joy. Fonken remains a part of Restoring Hope because of her passion for people and her compassion for those who struggle as she has.
Whitworth University senior Catarina Tarvin identifies her main source of stress as the pressure to succeed in sports. Throughout high school she struggled with depression and mainly had difficulty receiving expressions of love. College seemed like a great place to start over but it was here that she received her first diagnosis of clinical depression. Tarvin identified the process of losing her best friend due to her own depression as her breaking point with the illness. She recounts driving alone along the back roads of Five Mile and considering just driving off the edge of the road. This is a pivotal point in her battle with depression because it changed her outlook toward life.
"Therapy saved my life," Tarvin stated. While admitting that you need help can be difficult, Tarvin points toward finding the right therapists as an important step in helping cope with depression. She affirms that admitting that you are struggling is extremely difficult, but it allows you to learn how to release the weight of all the pain.
A common theme throughout these stories is the necessity of direct and physical action. Often it is not enough to simply tell an individual that he or she should visit the counseling center. Instead, taking a friend by the hand and making a health appointment with him or her is a more effective and altering step. The point is to take action, to be present in others' lives and always to have compassion.
Before her death, Virginia Woolf wrote constantly. Ironically, one of her observations was, "You cannot find peace by avoiding life."