by Alexandra Huzyk ’20
What initially started in 1979 as a support group for mothers with children who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has become what is known as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). This organization now offers various programs and services, including support groups and classes, for people who have been diagnosed with various forms of mental illness as well as their family members.
On Wednesday, April 4, an event was held by Active Minds, the psychology department, and the Personal Counseling Center. Members of the Rhode Island Chapter of NAMI came to Providence College to educate students about the stigma surrounding around mental illness and provide testimonies of hope. Three speakers shared their respective experiences with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
“Mental illnesses are biological, and often hereditary, so it’s not as if you’re making a conscious decision to become sick,” said one of the presenters. Oftentimes, traumatic situations can trigger the symptoms of mental illnesses. Onset symptoms usually occur in people who are between the ages of 18 and 25.
The first speaker, Seth Akers-Campbell, is a current graduate student at Brown University who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He said that when he was younger, he had no particular reasons to be depressed, but he was. He shared that he channeled his emotions into his schoolwork and sports, and so his symptoms went unnoticed for a long period of time. In his sophomore year of college, his depression was triggered by a long snow storm. He described his symptoms as, “the loss of all motivation, the inability to get out of bed,” and that eventually, “death takes over your whole brain, it’s all you think about.” After this occasion, he finally sought out help and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
However, the medication that was prescribed to Akers-Campbell was ineffective and he suffered from constant side effects. Akers-Campbell said, “About a year later, after I began my medication, I snapped, and that was my first manic episode.” As a person who has bipolar disorder, Akers-Campbell has episodes of both depression and mania. “It’s the opposite of depression,” Akers-Campbell says about mania. “You always have to be doing something, even if that means not getting any sleep. You don’t get the usual negative reinforcement, so you don’t feel bad and so nothing ever tells you to stop.” After a long road of trial and error with various medications, he says that he finally found a combination that subdues his symptoms and allows him to live his life.
One student asked Akers-Campbell what they should do if they think a friend might be mentally ill. “The best thing that you can do as a friend is get them help,” Akers-Campbell said in response. “You may think that they will hate you for a little bit, and they will, but then they’ll love you forever.”
Another speaker, Lea Knizek ’17, shared her experience with anxiety. She said that her symptoms were triggered during a rough start on the first day of high school, when she experienced a panic attack for the first time. “My heart was beating so, so fast and my skin felt like it was ripping off and my bones were breaking,” she recalled. After going to the nurse and being sent back to class, she ignored her symptoms and chose not to tell her parents because she felt that they would be disappointed in her. In order to combat what she felt, Knizek says that she always kept busy, but, “I was so drained that I couldn’t live in the present moment and was constantly thinking about what could go wrong.”
After graduating high school and choosing to attend PC, Knizek says that her symptoms returned and she developed an eating disorder. She was so nervous to talk during her Development of Western Civilization seminar that her grade plummeted and she received a letter that she was on academic probation. On top of this, she began to withdraw from her friends, quit dancing, became obsessed with going to the gym, and almost stopped eating entirely. She says that when things got really bad, one of her friends sat her down and she was able to share everything that she had been suppressing for so long. Her friend urged her to go the Counseling Center, and so she went. Although she did not enjoy going to counseling at first, Knizek shared that she was able to talk to someone without judgement and that she learned different techniques to manage her anxiety.
The last speaker, Walker Goncalves, shared his story about living with schizophrenia. He recalled having heard voices, always being paranoid, and being depressed. “When I went to school, the voices started accumulating and I started doing horrific things,” said Goncalves. After struggling to graduate high school and to maintain a steady job, Goncalves continued to have trouble controlling his emotions. When he was 24, he was jumped and called the Providence Center, a mental health facility, asking for help and saying that he wanted to get revenge on all of the bullies in his life. He was mentally evaluated, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“I started a whole new life after I got my medication,” said Goncalves. “I don’t think it’s a burden being schizophrenic, I think it’s a gift from God that I can go around and talk to people.”