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Overcoming the stigmas of mental illness

March 23, 2016
Environmental biology senior Mirijam Garske meditates to a reading of the poem '"All The Way" by Charles Bukowski on March 19, 2016 in her apartment in East Lansing. Garske has been meditating since she was in the 8th grade.
Environmental biology senior Mirijam Garske meditates to a reading of the poem '"All The Way" by Charles Bukowski on March 19, 2016 in her apartment in East Lansing. Garske has been meditating since she was in the 8th grade. —
Photo by Emily Elconin | and Emily Elconin The State News

Each year, MSU hosts a Mental Health Awareness Week with help from the Associate Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU. The week aims to highlight resources, generate discussions, and ultimately lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness.

These four students share their own battles with mental health in hopes that it will shine a light on what it is like to live with a mental illness.


A simple act — walking to class or sitting in lecture — can spiral into a terrifying event for microbiology-environmental biology senior Mirijam Garske.

Garske was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and a panic disorder in addition to her phobias, which can cause problems especially with her anxiety.

“It’s such a huge issue,” Garske said. “There are so little resources available around campus.”

Garske describes her experience with Olin Psychiatry Services as a “complete disaster.” She said there was a four month waitlist when she sought help during her junior year.

Garske said last year she would avoid a class throughout the semester because of its large size and improbability of her being able to escape. She said her claustrophobia affects her on a day-to-day basis in addition to her anxiety.

Garske said she re-established Active Minds at MSU, an organization with the goal to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, because it meant so much to her.

“Mental health is something that needs to be discussed,” Garske said. “It needs to be something that is more openly talked about especially on a university campus.”

Garske said Active Minds is a support system for other students who have or are dealing with a mental health disorder.

She said while dating someone with severe depression, she was unsure of what to do or how to help, so she wanted to bring Active Minds back.

“The vocabulary and the way that people talk about mental health or illnesses in general, I think that’s where we need to start — by changing the conversation,” Garske said.

Garske said a lot of jokes people make about mental illness — like saying they have OCD when things are out of place when they don’t actually have a diagnosis — can detract from people who are actually experiencing mental illness.

Most mental health disorders begin at a young age but are not brought to light until the person is much older because of a variety of factors.

Garske said when she was moving back from Mexico to Michigan her mental disorder came to light and she didn’t know what to do.

“My family, nobody knew about it,” Garske said. “For me, it was really bad.”

Garkse said without her support system she wouldn’t have been able to do it. She said if it had started in college she would have been unable to handle it because of the lack of conversation surrounding it.

“It’s a part of my life, it always will be and I experience it every single day to some extent,” she said. “But it’s not the only thing there is to me.”

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For an active, young student-government member that was all of the sudden losing touch, fear began to take over.

Political theory junior and ASMSU vice president for governmental affairs Bryn Williams first started to notice a change in his own behavior during his sophomore year of college.

“I couldn’t feel fulfilled for some reason,” Williams said. He said he spent the summer of 2014 working for ASMSU and when the school year started something was going wrong.

“It was an entirely different experience,” Williams said. “It was just something that didn’t feel right.”

Williams said he was unsure of what caused him to feel this way, and concluded it was a variety of things.

“My social life took a hit because of that,” Williams said, adding that he had trouble feeling comfortable in social situations.

He said he no longer enjoyed going out to places because of a lot of social pressure.

“There’s an immense amount of social pressure on college campuses and that doesn’t allow people to talk about mental health freely,” Williams said.

Williams said he felt like everyone was moving quickly around him while he was stuck.

The fear of speaking with someone while already in a vulnerable state could be a reason many people shy away from help, he said.

“When you first start to understand the implications of a slightly altered mental health state you don’t recognize the extent to which you may be just actually in need of talking to someone,” Williams said.

Williams said during winter break he had an injury that needed corrective surgery and that the limit on his mobility dug a ditch for his already low mental state, and his family began to notice things.

“They just realized I wasn’t who they knew me to be,” Williams said.

During his bout with depression, he lost friends. He said both ends had stopped trying.

Williams said his struggle with “minor depression” has made him advocate for those who feel like they’re alone in the fight. He said he is no longer speaking to someone but rather handling his own situation.

“I’ve come to terms with things,” Williams said.


When most people are nine years old, they are finally starting to come out of their shell and try new things. Business freshman Emma Cantrell had just been diagnosed with depression and was trying to figure out why she felt the way she did.

“I started feeling that I was different from everyone else,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell said she was on and off medication until her freshman year of high school.

Cantrell described her freshman year as a low, vulnerable time. She said she started to talk to a boy she went to school with about her suicidal thoughts and depression, and it quickly went wrong.

“I missed a lot of warning flags,” Cantrell said. “He sexually assaulted me.”

Cantrell said she eventually told her parents and went to police, but nothing came out of the process.

“I didn’t want to tell anyone about it because I blamed myself,” Cantrell said. “I felt like it was something that I brought upon myself.”

Cantrell said the next day she made an attempt to take her life. She said she was taken to a mental hospital and went through therapy.

“I was in and out, up and down with depression for a long time,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell said after returning home from a study abroad trip, things began to go wrong and she attempted suicide again, this time as an adult.

Her transition to college was not an easy one with her mental disorder.

“I skipped all of my classes for three days and just laid in bed,” Cantrell said. “I felt depressed.”

Cantrell said her battle eventually improved, but she still struggles every day.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about mental health and mental hospitals,” Cantrell said.

Most people don’t know what to do about mental health or how to act around it, Cantrell said.

“People tend to think that you’re just lazy when you’re depressed and they don’t understand,” she said.

Her own experience has made her able to talk with people who struggle with their own mental state. She said everything she’s been through defines who she is, but in a positive way.

“My normal is depression, and that’s not just sad all the time,” Cantrell said, adding that her depression is not something she will get over, but is a part of her that she will always have.

“Even if you move on and you get better,” Cantrell said. “You’ll always remember how you felt.”


When social work junior Nick Holcman was two-years-old, he and his mother started to notice he was changing.

“Growing up, I always kind of felt that something was wrong,” Holcman said.

Holcman, a transgender man, struggled with gender identity most of his young life. He said he experienced gender dysphoria, or the feeling of one’s sex not matching their gender, throughout his childhood and into his teenage years.

“It got so bad that my freshman year of high school I tried to commit suicide,” Holcman said.

Holcman said he wound up in a mental hospital, where he finally heard the word “transgender.” He was then diagnosed with depression and a generalized anxiety disorder while in the hospital. He said his diagnosis brought him solace because it put a name to how he was feeling.

“At the time I was very prone to the stigma of medication with mental health disorders,” Holcman said.

With the harsh stigma surrounding medication for mental health disorders, he said he still struggles with the stigma and has yet to go on medication.

“I also struggled with self-harm,” Holcman said. “High school is really an intense time for everyone.”

Holcman said after his diagnosis, he wanted to help his peers who were struggling with mental illnesses. He is the co-founder of the MSU chapter of To Write Love On Her Arms, or TWLOHA. The organization raises money for mental health resources and provides assistance to those dealing with self-harm.

He said the organization has become a support group for anyone who is battling a mental health disorder.

Holcman came out as transgender his freshman year of high school, and said this confusing time began to show him how large the stigma is surrounding mental health.

“When you talk about mental health, people kind of say, ‘Well, don’t you have more important things to do than be sad all the time?’" Holcman said.

Holcman said he has bad social anxiety and doesn’t like to leave his house.

His only experience with on-campus resources was to get approved to start hormones through Olin, he said. The process took around four months.

Holcman’s own experiences have made him fight for and offer advice to anyone dealing with mental health alone.

“Find help,” Holcman said. “Talking about it is really the most important.”


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