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How students who struggle with mental illness can find help

These three high-achieving students at one of the world's most prestigious universities have also suffered crippling depression and been through years of therapy and medication. In the second part of his report, Jeffrey Brown hears how they got help with debilitating illness, then learns more about student mental health challenges and solutions from Alfiee Breland-Noble of Georgetown University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Being the first in the family to attend college presents one kind of pressure on students, but, increasingly, a wide variety of students are presenting symptoms of depression and anxiety, and, worse, hopelessness.

    Last night, we looked at this concerning situation in the first of a two-part series around National Mental Health Month.

    Tonight, Jeffrey Brown returns to a school trying to address the problem. He talks to three young people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about their participation in the Portraits of Resilience Project.

  • Emily Tang:

    I’m Emily Tang. I’m finishing my junior year now. I’m studying electrical engineering and computer science, with a minor in linguistics.

  • Victor Morales:

    My name is Victor Morales, and I graduated in 2014. I studied mathematics. I’m looking for a job now as a teacher.

  • Haley Cope:

    My name is Haley Cope. I’m a senior here at MIT in women and gender studies.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They are three high-achieving students at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. They have also suffered crippling depression, and been through years of therapy and medication.

    For Haley, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the problems started well before college.

  • Haley Cope:

    I thought it was kind of a normal thing. Oh, doesn’t every middle schooler try to harm themselves?

    No, they don’t, and so definitely middle school. High school was a very turbulent time, both in my family life, and with the stress of applying to colleges, trying to make myself perfect for that, for coming in to MIT, my dream school.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Make yourself perfect?

  • Haley Cope:

    Yes, sir.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That’s a big thing.

  • Haley Cope:

    It is. It’s not something I can do alone. It’s not something achievable.

    By the time I got to MIT, I failed every single class my freshman fall, and had a problem with alcohol. By my freshman spring was when I realized, after a — a classmate of mine in my dormitory committed suicide, I realized I really should be getting help again.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Haley sought counseling on campus. And, later, when she herself became suicidal, she spent time at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility outside Boston.

    Emily, too, points to early pressures growing up in Plano, Texas, including expectations within her family, and stressful relationships with peers.

  • Emily Tang:

    I got through it. I kept going. And then, once I got to college, I felt so tired, so out of it all the time. The depression really hit me hard again. And this time, it was sort of worse than ever.

    It was really easy for me to just sort of slip through the cracks, for me to sort of stop going to class, stop functioning, stop living my daily life. And that was when I went on leave from school.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Victor says he always felt like an outsider, as an immigrant from Mexico who was raised in Merced, California, and as someone who came to see himself as bisexual.

    By his sophomore year at MIT, he experienced debilitating anxiety, but says he didn’t understand it was a form of mental illness.

  • Victor Morales:

    So I just blamed myself. And I slept through…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What did you think was going on?

  • Victor Morales:

    I thought, everybody gets stressed out, and everybody freezes when they’re stressed out. But I slept through an exam, and I didn’t even feel like even e-mailing the professor, because I felt so much shame, just had so much anxiety built up. I had this feeling like I didn’t belong at MIT.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You mean, as in you’re an impostor here?

  • Victor Morales:

    Yes, I’m not smart enough to be here.

    And it wasn’t until months after I graduated — I was starting to go through the symptoms of mental illnesses and depression, and I realized, I think I have depression.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Did opening up to your family help, or hurt, or what was that experience like?

  • Victor Morales:

    At first, it was hurtful. I come from a — this kind of stereotypical Mexican family. And depression in our community is like an evil spirit.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Emily, what happened when you told your family or people back home?

  • Emily Tang:

    I come from an Asian-American household, obviously.

    And in China, there’s not — mental health care is not a thing. It’s sort of like you don’t talk about it, you just get through it, it doesn’t exist, right?

    It was really a struggle, I think, to really get my parents to understand what I was going through.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What about coming here, the pressure cooker of coming to a place where everybody is a high achiever?

  • Haley Cope:

    Oh, absolutely, not to discount the, I don’t know, perhaps utilitarian mind work of — framework of MIT that kind of puts people’s value based on how many hours you can spend in lab, or how well you do in your classes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You feel that?

  • Haley Cope:

    You do.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And you did get to a point, at times, where you thought of taking your life?

  • Haley Cope:

    Yes, sir. It got the worst at the end of my freshman spring semester. And I was hospitalized.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Did either of you ever get to that point?

    Yes?

  • Victor Morales:

    Yes.

    I didn’t want to live life without the flavor.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For Emily, things came to a head at home during her leave from MIT.

  • Emily Tang:

    I applied three times to return before I finally got accepted to return. And, you know, they were sort of like, why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you e-mailing this person? Why aren’t you trying harder?

    I was like, I can’t do this anymore, and I walked out of the house. there was like a body of water like in the neighborhood. And I kind of walked to the edge of it, and I was just kind of sitting there. And I was thinking about — I was thinking about killing myself.

    I saw my parents’ car, like, driving by. They were driving around the neighborhood looking for me. And after a couple hours, you know, a friend talked me down.

    And the next day, we talked about it, and my dad kind of hit the point. He was like, “You know, I really think Emily does care about this. It is her future, after all.”

    And I think that was kind of the turning point.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That goes to a larger theme in the Portraits of Resilience Project. In addition to therapy and medication, these students found critical support from friends and loved ones.

  • Emily Tang:

    I actually got really lucky in that respect. I was in a living group. It’s really small, really tight-knit. And two upperclassmen had been through really similar experiences.

    And so I sort of had their experiences to guide me. I had friends to walk me to my appointments.

  • Victor Morales:

    Through my depression, I built up kind of like a collection of techniques. Like, how do I overcome anxiety? Like, what do I do if I feel anxiety? Sometimes, I would call a friend to get me out of bed.

    Anyone, even people who are not at a campus, parents especially, can do something about this just by talking about it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All three are now eager to share what they have learned about themselves, in the hope of helping others.

  • Victor Morales:

    I don’t determine my beauty, my smartness, my success based on other people anymore. And that was one of those things that I deconstructed.

    And, after that, it felt so natural to tell my story. These weaknesses that I used to think were weaknesses are now strengths of mine.

  • Haley Cope:

    In my community, I had these kind of conversations with people that went something along the lines of, if you’re going to mental health and counseling, make sure that you don’t say anything about suicide, because they’re going to commit you, and then you’re going to be forced to leave MIT, and then you’re never going to come back.

    And so I really wanted to address that kind of stigma. It’s like saying, don’t go to the doctor after your heart attack, MIT is going to kick you out.

  • Emily Tang:

    I started an antidepressant that I think is working, finally. It’s a process. But I think I get a little better at learning how to navigate my resources and how to get through the crisis with minimal damage and minimal impact on my life.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Victor, what are your plans for the future?

  • Victor Morales:

    There’s so much I want to do. I want to go back to grad school. I care a lot about people from Latin America.

    But I also want to learn more in math. So, I’m kind of like, which direction do I go? We will see what ends up falling into place.

  • Emily Tang:

    I’m the president of my dorm, and I have been for the last year.

    I will openly talk about what I’m going through. I will tell people about the resources available, and I will offer myself.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Haley has a coding job when she graduates. And there’s a happy new twist to her story.

    In her essay for “Portraits of Resilience,” she wrote of a new friend.

  • Haley Cope:

    In the story, I talk about meeting a friend in the psychiatric hospital. That friend became my best friend, who became my boyfriend, who became my fiance, and in October will be my husband.

    Making that journey together has been a great and difficult and process full of grace and growth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Emily Tang, Victor Morales, Haley Cope, thank you all very much.

  • Haley Cope:

    Thank you.

  • Victor Morales:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A follow-up now from a leading expert on depression and anxiety in young people.

    Alfiee Breland-Noble is associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center.

    Welcome to you.

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We have been watching an attempt to put a public face on this problem.

    So, I want to first ask you, how much does the stigma remain, and how much are young people more willing to come forward and talk about it?

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    So, I think there’s always going to be a stigma associated with mental illness. It’s just a part of what it means for people who struggle with these illnesses.

    I think what I have noticed in recent years, five to 10 years, is that millennials and the young people coming right behind them are far more likely and willing to talk about these issues.

    I wouldn’t say that it has completely eradicated the stigma, but, absolutely, young people who are in college and right behind them, high schoolers, are far more likely to share that these are the things they’re struggling with.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How much do experts like yourself understand why this seeming rise in anxiety and depression and suicide? Why is that happening?

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    One factor is that, when you look at the young people we saw, you see racial diversity, which I think is amazing and wonderful, because these illness are so much more stigmatized in communities of color.

    I do think that people are more aware of what some of these issues are. They’re aware of signs and symptoms. And what we find is that, for African-Americans and other communities of color, people feel that they’re exponentially stigmatized, in addition to race, gender, sexual orientation or sexuality, by having a label or being diagnosed with a mental illness.

    And so we heard one young man say, the Latino brother, when he talked about seeing these things and thinking it was normal, at some point during his college career, someone enlightened him and shared with him, these are signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety, which a lightbulb was able to go off for him.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And in terms of factors behind, do we know more about the — is it the genetics or the social behavior?

    We heard some references to social media playing a new role.

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    Absolutely. Absolutely.

    So, there’s always going to be the hereditary and the chemical and biological factors. I think what has changed for some of our young people is social media.

    They are so much more inundated with all kinds of information, not all of it positive. The young people spoke about what it means to be constantly comparing yourself.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    So you’re always looking at report cards, so to speak, in different aspects of life.

    And I think it can absolutely have a negative impact on our young people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How prepared or unprepared are schools today?

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    So, I think, what I will say is, for colleges and universities, they’re trying. Right?

    So, they don’t always have the bandwidth and the capacity to accommodate the sheer volume of students who are coming forward. Much more so now than even 20 years ago, when I was in school.

    I think that what colleges and universities are trying to do is find extenders, find other ways to provide support for young people, so that everything is not funneling just through the counseling center.

    And there are many opportunities that I think colleges and universities have found to do that, whether that’s connecting with community members who can also provide care, connecting with different kinds of apps or other electronic types of things to help our young people develop coping skills.

    So it’s not necessarily full care, per se. But it is providing a stopgap measure so that, in between visits or until a young person can get a visit with a person in the counseling center, they have other ways that they can support themselves.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, what kind of treatment is available to young people now?

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    So, what I always tell young people when I treat them is that there’s the fast way, the slow way, and the best way.

    And I think, when we think about fast and slow ways, medications, psychotropic medications, psychiatrist medications are absolutely an option for people.

    I think, along with that, it’s important to think about the kinds of talk therapy that are available to people. And I always say that the best way is to try to do a combination of both, to the extent that a young person and their families feel comfortable with psychiatric medication.

    So, for talk therapy, we’re thinking about things like cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, teaching coping skills, and support groups.

    And then we know what some of the different kinds of anti-anxiety and antidepressants are that are available to young people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, finally, what’s the most important thing you want young people to know who perhaps are starting to experience anxiety and depression, and what — and their parents? What should they know?

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    I think, for parents and young people, they should absolutely know that they are not alone, that mental illness doesn’t discriminate.

    It can impact anyone, and that there are people right around us, our loved ones, family members, community members, church members, other peers at school, who are struggling with these issues.

  • And so it’s really important for them to know they’re not alone. There’s help. And I tell young people all the time two things:

    Take diets and breaks from social media.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Take diets from social media.

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    That’s exactly right, diets and take a break from social media, and reach out for help to people you feel like you can trust.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Alfiee Breland-Noble of Georgetown University, thank you very much.

  • Alfiee Breland-Noble:

    Thank you.

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