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April 30, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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More Shrinks Needed in Student Health

It was hard to recognize the symptoms at the start of my first manic episode, because I felt like me, just a better version. My mood was great, I was busy, and I had a lot of energy. It was really good — until it was really bad.

Mania is exhilarating. Everything is just turned way up. When I’m manic, I go on 3am waterfront runs, I spend money that I don’t have on things I don’t need, and I chase every opportunity I can. I feel unstoppable. Fear is replaced with thrill. Every emotion I feel is extreme.

When I’m manic, I can act recklessly. I hurt my friends, I fall behind on my assignments, and I act without thinking about consequences.

After about two weeks of riding the elevated mood, a switch flips, and I become depressed.

When I’m depressed, I feel numb. I feel like there’s a grey filter over the world. Everything is dull and lifeless. I can’t make it out of bed. I sleep for hours, and when I feel awake, I force myself to go back to sleep. Life just isn’t worth facing. It’s not so much sadness as it is apathy. I can go days without administering self-care; I cut down my showers, my appetite completely goes away, and I don’t leave my room. I don’t do anything because I feel like I can’t do anything. Depression feels like a fog that refuses to lift.

My first depressive episode lasted about two weeks, then I was suddenly manic again. The switch flips too easily. I can get home from a run at 4 in the morning, rest for a couple of hours, and wake up to severe depression.

As I went through these episodes, I became physically different. I was tired and I lost weight. I no longer looked like me, and I didn’t really feel like me either. I couldn’t control what I was thinking or how I was acting. After the first few episodes, I got used to the word “usual”. I don’t usually act like this. I wouldn’t usually say that. I no longer operate at my baseline. I’m always either way above or way below it.

There’s a reliable indicator to tell which mood I’m in – my sleep pattern. When I’m depressed, I feel tired and lethargic, so I sleep all day. When I’m manic, I have so much energy that I just feel like there’s no time to sleep, so I can go days without taking any time to rest.

The one constant in both moods is my appetite. When I’m depressed, I see no point in eating. I just don’t really think that it matters. When I’m manic, my appetite drops way down. I forget to eat, because I feel like I have more important things to do.

When I noticed that I was in two distinct moods, I suspected I was bipolar. There’s a real taboo against consulting WebMD, I’ve heard it time and time again, “you can’t trust what you find on the internet”. I had to confirm my suspicion, though, so I quickly peeked online to see what bipolar disorder is like. It turns out I check all the boxes for the illness. I might as well be a textbook case.

I wanted to tell people that I was acting differently because I was sick, but I had no proof to back that up with. That just left me believing I was bipolar, but plagued by self-doubt because I couldn’t really be 100% sure.

In July, I booked in with Student Health to consult a GP about this. I wanted to talk to someone, and I wanted some answers to the many questions I had. In my appointment, I explained my symptoms, told the doctor what I thought I had, and asked what my options were. The doctor agreed – it seemed like I had bipolar II disorder. He started me on sleeping pills so that I could at least maintain a normal sleep pattern. That’s not really a huge victory, though. In order to get an official diagnosis and talk about treatment options, I had to see a psychiatrist.

Currently, the University employs one psychiatrist. He’s a really great guy doing really great work. He works on Kelburn campus two days a week – on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So if he works from 9am to 5pm taking hour long appointments, he can take about eight appointments each day, meaning he’ll probably be seeing 16 students a week. There are 22,000 students enrolled at VUW, and a lot of them have Student Health as their PHO. Having one psychiatrist on staff isn’t enough.

The earliest psychiatrist appointment Student Health could book was in three months. That would mean three more months of ups and downs. I felt helpless because the episodes were ruining my quality of life. I hung in there, though, believing that seeing a psychiatrist would mean starting my treatment. I held onto hope that I would be helped.

After three months of experiencing extreme episodes, I had my first appointment with the psychiatrist. Within ten minutes of our meeting, he diagnosed me with what I already knew I had. Three months of agony that stemmed from uncertainty was snuffed out after a few minutes of talking to a psychiatrist, and he started me on medication immediately.

The Student Health psychiatrist only takes monthly appointments, because his caseload is so full, so the trial and error process of finding the right medication is really long. As I write this, the psychiatrist has been out sick for about a month, so all of his appointments have been cancelled and need to be re-booked. I haven’t had an appointment since the start of the year, and my medication isn’t working. I was really counting on my appointment at the start of April to discuss changing my treatment, but now I find myself not knowing when I can get the help I need. Every time I feel like life’s too much, I manage to find a crumb of strength and hope to hold onto, but I’m running really low now.

According to VUW’s Student Health page, enrolling with them allows them to get government funds to provide primary health care. The expectation for students enrolled with them is that Student Health will provide health care, and that there will be resources available when students need help. I know that everyone in Student Health is doing the best they can, but they’re just not doing enough. Prioritizing mental health is really a no-brainer. The University should allocate more resources to hire mental health care professionals. Mine is only one story. There are so many other students that are waiting for a chance to get help. The system needs to improve because every student deserves to get the attention, care, and treatment they need.

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